A new coach and general manager in Buffalo will mean new roles and responsibilities for players. Justin Bailey could benefit as much as anyone.
There was a debate this season about what type of role Bailey should play. Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray saw a 6-foot-3, 214-pounder with serious skating ability. The coach and GM figured Bailey could be a physical presence, the kind of guy who would strike fear into defensemen while settling into a third- or fourth-line spot.
Bailey, however, has never been that guy. Though he’s big, the 21-year-old is not a winger who hits and plays mean. Bailey skated on scoring lines in juniors and the American Hockey League. That’s what he is used to, so that’s what he knows.
Murray said before his firing the Sabres needed to help Bailey “figure out what his role is.” With a clean slate, Bailey can enter next season and show the new guys what his role should be.
“My dream and my goal is to play in the NHL,” Bailey said. “I need to have a good, strong summer and start in training camp better than I did last year, show them that I’m for real and that I can come and make the team out of camp.”
After a decent eight-game audition in 2015-16, Bailey had a shot a job this season. Instead, he was one of the first demotions to Rochester during a subpar camp. The winger got a two-game look in November, but the brass was not impressed with Bailey’s play in limited minutes and angrily sent him back.
A recall from late December to mid-January provided the highlight of the year. Bailey scored his first NHL goal Jan. 3 in New York against the Rangers.
“You always have that dream of scoring your first goal,” the Williamsville native said. “That was one thing looking back on this year that will be my most memorable moment.”
Still, he was stuck in the seven- to 10-minute range for ice time. He would excel some nights, disappear others, so the Sabres sent him down.
Bailey got his big break in February. He stuck around for 23 games and earned extended playing time next to center Ryan O’Reilly and right wing Kyle Okposo.
“There was a lot of ups and downs throughout the whole year,” Bailey said. “When I went up there I started off with less minutes than I’m used to, but I think I was given more minutes when I was up there, too.
“Anytime you’re up there you have to do well with what you’re given. You’re not going to always play 20 minutes. You’re not always going to play seven minutes. Just do the most you can to stay up there no matter what role you’re in.”
Bailey finished with 32 games in Buffalo, recording two goals and four points while skating 10:37 per night. He took 36 shots and totaled 27 hits.
The numbers were much more impressive in Rochester. He had 23 goals and 36 points in 52 games. He had three game-winning goals while scoring on a team-best 18.3 percent of his shots. Bailey finished strong, putting up three goals and six points in the Amerks’ final seven games.
The second-round pick from 2013 has proved he can be a scoring-line player in the AHL. It’s up to him to show the next bosses he can be one in the NHL.
“I was fortunate enough to have a pretty good year here,” Bailey said in the Amerks’ arena. “I was fortunate to go up and have 30 games in the NHL this year. I think it was positive for myself.
“Obviously, I would have liked to have stayed in Buffalo as long as possible, but those are things I’ll think about during the summer. … I’ll really work on some things and come back better than I left here.”