This isn’t Justin Bailey’s first rodeo.
It’s his fourth time at the Buffalo Sabres Development Camp and times have changed for the Williamsville native drafted by the hometown team back in 2013.
“Three or four years ago I think I was a quiet kid who was definitely trying to take it all in, trying to prove myself,” Bailey said. “I’m coming in this camp as one of the leaders, one of the guys helping the young kids who might be visibly more nervous. And to come out there and prove myself as a leader and try to take guys under my wing.”
Bailey has an air of confidence after his first season of pro hockey. He played 70 games for Rochester with 20 goals and 25 assists. He made his NHL debut on Feb. 11, when he recorded seven shots in his first NHL game – the most in a Sabres debut since Alexander Mogilny in 1989. He went on to play in eight games over three call-ups for the Sabres.
Granted his first pro season didn’t start with an abundance of confidence. In his first few months with the Rochester Americans points were slow to come by and his confidence took a hit. But he regrouped at Christmas break and learned the lesson of pro hockey life – you have to grind out a long season and trust the process.
“I think just to stick with it,” Bailey said when asked what he learned last year. “For me in the beginning of the season I started off slow and I don’t think it was due to lack of chances, it was just lack of execution. I stuck with it. As much as I thought I played well, the numbers weren’t there. I just stuck with the plan and continued to get chances and was fortunate to have a good second half.”
Bailey experienced the hockey rollercoaster last year. Good games tempered by bad games. Struggles to finish plays followed by pitch-perfect execution.
His goal for his fourth development camp remains the same as every camp – show the coaching staff how he has improved. He noted he needs to get better in the defensive zone, demonstrate consistency and play to his strengths.
“Speed is a huge part of my game so being able to the faster player on the ice, making plays quickly, using my body, my size to create scoring chances for myself as well as others,” Bailey said. “For me, I’m a person who scores goals, likes to score goals, and that’s something I pride myself on. So if I’m playing fast and getting chances I think that will fall.”
This development camp also gives him an opportunity to show his leadership skills. One of the veteran guys at the camp, his ability to calm and guide the younger players is something coaching staffs take note of. It’s also a way to pay forward the advice he received from veterans Matt Ellis and Patrick Kaleta last season in Rochester.
“When I got drafted, it seems like just yesterday,” Bailey said. “I know Matt Ellis and Patrick Kaleta are two guys who have taken me under their wing and I know they’ve told me a bunch of times how fast your career flies by.”
Bailey also continues to maneuver being the hometown kid playing for the hometown team – or at least in the hometown organization. That can be a source of stress but Bailey choses the positive spin, seeing it as an incentive to bring as much perfection to his game as possible.
“I think there’s always pressure whether I’m here or someplace else,” Bailey said. The pressure is “for myself for my family and friends and people who have helped me along the way. You want to play well for them.
“I think there’s a little bit added incentive when you’re playing in front of 18,000 people and you might know 1,000 of them. It’s obviously a little extra pressure but I think when you’re on the ice, there’s no sense of pressure for me. I just feel like I’m doing something I’ve been doing for 21 years.”