Aside from the mega-watt smile and engaging personality, the Justin Bailey of today bears almost no resemblance to the kid the Sabres drafted two years ago. He’s bigger, better, stronger and more confident.
In other words, the kid from Williamsville has become a man, one who is ready to start a career in hockey.
Bailey’s journey from Matthew Barnaby’s cradling arms to Pat LaFontaine’s house to raw Sabres prospect is about to transition to the next phase. After he and the Sabres close development camp Sunday, Bailey will prepare for his first NHL training camp as a professional. He’ll start a three-year contract in September, and there’s no doubt where Bailey wants to spend his rookie year.
“I’m from Buffalo, my family’s in Buffalo, so that’s the plan,” he said. “I’m trying to make that first impression now where I show I can dominate against other prospects, then come September show I can dominate and really compete against men that are in the NHL.”
While a spot in Rochester is more realistic for the 20-year-old, Bailey’s passionate commitment to reaching for the top makes the dream seem possible. For example, while most of the Sabres’ youngsters will return home Monday and tell their buddies what an exciting week they had, Bailey will wake up and head to the gym in First Niagara Center.
“There might be a couple guys ahead of me in management’s eyes,” Bailey said, “so that’s a little added incentive when it comes to getting in the weight room and getting some skates done the rest of the season.”
Bailey’s energy and hockey skills have made a positive impression on new coach Dan Byslma. The right winger stood out during drills, then upped his stock Friday by scoring in the prospect scrimmage, playing physical and doing important things such as driving the net and fighting for the puck along the boards.
“He’s one of the guys you’re probably looking at and focusing on a little bit more,” Bylsma said. “He played a real good game, showed his speed, showed his size, also had the ability in the offensive zone. He had a couple plays that didn’t turn into goals that I was impressed with as a big guy with his speed being able to make those plays.”
The 6-foot-3, 208-pound Bailey is growing accustomed to making first impressions. Drafted in the second round in 2013, he’s in his third development camp. He’s also on his third Sabres coach, with Byslma following Ron Rolston and Ted Nolan.
“You learn how to make a first impression,” Bailey said. “I was lucky enough to meet Coach Bylsma in the gym before camp. He’s familiar with me, and that’s just another one of those things where I’ve had the advantage of working out here and getting to know the training staff and everyone. That’s something that I’m very comfortable with.”
Bailey’s people skills allowed him to easily transition from one team to another this year. After growing up with Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League for three seasons, he accepted a trade to Memorial Cup contender Sault Ste. Marie. He had 12 goals and 28 points in 22 games with the Greyhounds and added seven goals and 14 points in 14 playoff games.
“He fit right in,” said fellow Sabres prospect and Soo teammate Jean Dupuy. “We had a lot of talented players on our team, so he fit right in with that. He’s an upbeat guy, so it was great getting to know him and just a pleasure playing with him.”
Including Bailey’s numbers from Kitchener, he totaled 41 goals and 83 points in 71 games last season. The stats combined with NHL size and a hard shot have put Bailey high on the Sabres’ prospect list. After Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, Bailey is in a tight group that includes fellow right wings Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching.
“When I got drafted, one of the biggest things that was said about me was I was a raw prospect that has a lot of upside but a lot that I haven’t really grown into,” said Bailey, who was a wiry 186 pounds on draft day but has since added 20 pounds of muscle. “I’m starting to really grow into my body. Finishing up in the OHL, I learned how to play a much better two-way game from what I played in midgets.
“Every year I’ve gotten better. From my first year in the OHL till now, it’s been amazing the changes that have happened. Now I need to go from taking small steps to taking a bigger one next year.”
The knock on Bailey is inconsistency in using his size to his advantage. He focused on that Friday, and the impact was obvious.
“When I’m playing one of my best nights, I’m one of the best players on the ice,” Bailey said. “It’s just really bringing that consistency every single night. I think that’s what will eventually get me to the NHL.”
After the scrimmage, Bailey spent time outside the arena signing autographs and posing for pictures. He knows the impact athletes can have on people. Barnaby, who played for the Sabres when Bailey was born in 1995, was friends and neighbors with Bailey’s mom. They remain close. LaFontaine welcomed Bailey into his Long Island home for a year as a 15-year-old. The Sabres’ Hall of Famer taught Bailey how to excel off the ice.
The experiences helped mold Bailey into a great kid. His development during the last two years have turned him into a respected man. He hopes the future includes him becoming a Sabres legend.
The opportunity is there. Bailey thinks about it about every time he pulls on a jersey with a Sabres logo.
“It’s a friendly reminder that for me it’s not just a dream anymore. It’s a reality,” said Bailey, who likens this era of optimism to the Sabres’ back-to-back conference final appearances in 2006 and 2007. “I remember how young I was and I remember just the atmosphere that the rink had during the playoffs and how special that was.
“I know for a fact that’s definitely in the near future. That kind of motivates me every day that I really want to be a part of that.”