Justin Bailey earned a spot on the Sabres’ top line last month. He knows there’s only one way to get back there.
After skating with Ryan O’Reilly and Kyle Okposo for 10 games, Bailey has shuffled around the lineup. He will start Tuesday’s game against Philadelphia alongside center Evan Rodrigues and right wing Matt Moulson.
“It’s a little different when you’re not playing as many minutes, but it’s something you have to earn as a young player,” Bailey said in KeyBank Center. “I earned my way to get on that top line, and that’s just what coach is going with. I just have to earn my way back, continue to play the right way and do the things that I know make the coaches happy.”
The rookie does a few things that make Dan Bylsma smile. Bailey has been more aggressive offensively while trying to make plays. He’s using his speed to challenge defensemen.
He still has to work on testing goaltenders (he has one shot or none in eight of the last nine games) and playing more physical.
“We want to, and Justin realizes it, play aggressive and gritty and physical and be a tight-gap team,” Bylsma said. “Justin has done that with good angles and being a hard guy to play against.
"He was in a tough spot last game stepping in there against the Pittsburgh team, and I thought he did a real good job showing that he could play against real good players and play tough and gritty against them.”
As expected, the 21-year-old is feeling more comfortable with each game. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing 17:14 against Colorado, which he did last month, or 7:11 against Tampa Bay, which he did last week.
He felt his best next to O’Reilly and Okposo.
“When I came up here I had a lot of confidence playing with those two guys, and I think it showed in my game," Bailey said. "I used my speed to really challenge D coming out of the zone, getting in on the forecheck and getting those guys the puck.
“I think I’ve been doing that more consistently. I think that’s why they’ve kept me up a little bit longer this time.”
Bailey has shuffled between Buffalo and Rochester, skating in 26 games with the Sabres and 40 with the Amerks. He’s been with the big club since Feb. 4. He may stay until the end of the season because of limited roster moves after the trade deadline and injuries to Okposo and William Carrier.
No matter how long Bailey is here, he wants to use his time wisely. That means playing well enough to get back to the top line.
“Those are the top guys for a reason,” Bailey said. “Everyone up here plays the right way. Everyone is in the right spot, does the right thing for the most part. Those guys do it every single shift, every single game. They just made it easy for me to play simple, play with speed and make plays."