Through his 32 games with the Buffalo Sabres last season, Justin Bailey noticed something. He was thinking. A lot. Too much, in fact. He was also holding on to bad plays, wondering if that last bad pass would be what the coaching staff remembered most about him.
So over the summer, Bailey talked with a sports psychologist to learn ways to get out of his own head, out of his own way, and be a more relaxed player.
He had a chance to practice those skills at game-speed the past few days as part of the leadership group for the Sabres at the Prospects Tournament. Bailey had a goal and an assist in the tournament finale on Monday in the Sabres 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in HarborCenter.
"I think in the first game I had a breakaway and obviously didn't score," Bailey said. "In the past, that's something that would kind of sit with me for a couple of minutes and kind of take away from my game. This summer I made a conscious effort. I spoke with some people who helped me with that stuff going forward. It's making sure to hit the reset button. Obviously you can't go in the past and change it. … So it's about keeping your head level."
It was a weekend of steady improvement for Bailey and the rest of the Sabres prospects as the players gear up for the main camp which begins with physicals on Thursday.
Last year, Bailey had hoped to make the Sabres roster out of training camp, but started the season in Rochester. He got a series of call-ups to the NHL, scoring two goals with two assists in those 32 games. But the biggest learning curve for him came in learning the importance of his mental game.
"It was something that was a weak spot in my game," Bailey said. "You look at some guys in the NHL, they might not be the most physically gifted, they might not be the most skilled guys on the ice, but they have that mental game down and that's how they play for so many years. When I was up for those games in Buffalo I thought I was in my head a lot. I tried to clear those thoughts and play to the best of my ability."
A better mental focus was noticeable as the game wore on, and an important part of his role as one of the older players on the prospects rosters.
"This was the first time I was at game speed and the first time there was adversity," Bailey said of putting into practice some of his new mental techniques. "I thought as a team there was adversity throughout the whole tournament and just being able to handle that, especially being an older guy. If I show that I’m flustered, it will trickle down to the rest of the team. I tried to keep an even keel and even if personally I had a bad shift, making sure the younger guys and new players knew they were dong good things on the ice."
Bailey did plenty of good things on the ice for the Sabres over the three games, making an impression on Chris Taylor, the new head coach for the Rochester Americans who was leading the prospects in this tournament.
"I liked his game," Taylor said of Bailey. "He worked hard. He chipped pucks in. He was good on the forecheck. He used his speed. He used his body. ... He can be assertive. He's got a big body. He's an athlete. He can brings two guys to him so someone else is open. That's what he can do and I thought he did a really good job with it."