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Baptiste has experience with greatness

Nick Baptiste is a pretty intriguing prospect the Buffalo Sabres have on the wing, when you consider he’s piled up 98 goals the last three seasons in junior hockey.

And come Friday night, he’s going to be the answer to a pretty unique trivia question. By all accounts, the 19-year-old will become the first player to be teammates of both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

Baptiste was traded from the Sudbury Wolves to McDavid’s Erie Otters early last season, joining a lineup featuring the No. 1 overall pick and also No. 3 choice Dylan Strome. In the Sabres’ development camp scrimmage Friday night in First Niagara Center, he’ll start off at Eichel’s right wing with Evan Rodrigues, Eichel’s Boston University linemate, on the left side.

“I’m a lucky guy,” a smiling Baptiste said Thursday after the team’s on-ice testing sessions downtown. “They’re both so fantastically gifted. ... You can already see with Jack the skill and the speed and how good he is all around the ice. I’m lucky to play with both and I’m looking forward to playing with Jack in the future.”

(If you want to say Sam Reinhart has the same distinction, he’ll have to wait. The Sabres’ No. 2 pick last year will be on the opposite team from Eichel Friday after starring with McDavid for Team Canada in the World Junior Championships).

Baptiste had 45 goals and 89 points during the 2013-14 campaign and combined for 32 goals and 32 assists between Sudbury and Erie this past season. He spent some time as McDavid’s linemate and also joined him on power-play work for the Otters.

“Connor is very shifty, ins and outs and can dazzle you with his speed right beside a defenseman,” Baptiste said. “I haven’t seen Jack in a game situation yet but I like the power and explosiveness. Today we were doing the length of the ice drill and I think he took maybe six strides to get the whole way. He’s so powerful and strong on his feet. Combine that with the skill he has, and it’s tough to defend for sure.”

The Sabres drafted Baptiste in the third round in 2013 after a 21-goal season in Sudbury. When McDavid was talking to reporters here last August to promote the Otters’ October game in Buffalo, he called that “a steal.” And that was just from watching Baptiste with the Wolves, and not as a teammate.

Baptiste, 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, has a knack for the net and the Sabres certainly need more of those types in their organization. Eichel said he’s been impressed seeing his winger’s shot, high praise given the heavy, powerful pounding Eichel can give to a puck.

“Over the last two seasons, I’ve developed into a player that I think Buffalo is happy to have,” Baptiste said. “For me, it’s coming to camp and playing the right away, playing the way I’ve been playing the last two seasons. Being successful and playing my game.”

Baptiste and Williamsville’s Justin Bailey are the up-and-coming Sabres prospects ticketed for Rochester this season but Baptiste is looking at training camp as an open opportunity. The Buffalo roster appears pretty overloaded at forward but it could still be open to a wild showing in September from someone.

“I’m coming here to make Buffalo and not just try to play for Rochester,” Baptiste said. “As much as that would be unbelievable for me and I’d be ecstatic to play there, my ultimate goal is to play for Buffalo, be a real eye-opener to everyone on the staff and show I belong there.”

There figures to be a lot of eyes in the building Friday night focused on Eichel. But Baptiste will have a real chance to get noticed too. He’s used to it. With McDavid in tow, the Otters were a traveling circus all season across the Ontario Hockey League as they fell three wins shy of making it to the Memorial Cup.

“The Otters’ staff did a good job making us stay focused,” Baptiste said. “... Outside the rink it’s nice to see that support, whether it’s just for Connor or a team. Most of the time, it was team and Connor was very good reflecting his spotlight upon everybody and making sure we all knew it wasn’t just him having success, it was the whole team.”

The Sabres said more than 10,000 tickets had been sold for the scrimmage by late Thursday afternoon at $10 a pop. The crowd is expected to exceed 15,000 tonight. Hockey Heaven indeed.

“It’s special,” Baptiste said. “What are we into, the middle of July? It’s summertime and people are packing the stadium to watch hockey. That’s special. We really notice the fan support and it’s really nice to see.

“It shows how happy everyone is for hockey to be coming back and with the job Tim Murray has done spicing things up in Buffalo, the city is real excited about everything.”


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