Only one chance to make a first impression? That may be true in some places, but definitely not Buffalo.
Justin Bailey can attest to that.
“It’s been a different coach four times and a different GM three times,” Bailey said Saturday after starting his fifth Sabres development camp.
Once again, the Sabres’ prospects went to work with new leaders taking notes. General Manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley sat in fan-filled HarborCenter and watched NHL hopefuls do one-on-one drills. While the recent draft picks nervously tried to fit in, the camp veterans took command.
Not surprisingly, Bailey was on the list with fellow wingers Nick Baptiste and Hudson Fasching. Baptiste and Bailey were faster than their fellow campers. Fasching was bigger. They’ve had experience trying to wow new bosses, and it showed.
“Every camp you want to come out and impress and show you’ve made strides throughout the summer,” Bailey said. “It adds a little bit with it being a completely different staff and what seems to be a whole new mindset.”
The forwards sense a different vibe this summer.
“Just the mood here is pretty upbeat and happy,” Baptiste said. “You can tell the direction in Buffalo and Rochester. It’s pretty positive.”
The wingers want to ride the positivity into a roster spot. They’ve had a taste of the NHL life, and they’re eager to embrace it.
“Regardless of who’s at the helm, you’re working your hardest to impress,” Baptiste said. “I’m looking to make the Sabres. I’m trying to be a full-time NHLer, and that’s my goal. I’ve got to start with that here in my first skate and try and continue that throughout the summer and into main camp.”
When last season ended, Fasching, Bailey and Baptiste had relatively clear paths to the Sabres’ dressing room. Since then, Buffalo has added right wing Jason Pominville, left wing Benoit Pouliot and experienced minor-leaguers.
It could have been a downer for the young wingers. In fact, it’s been the opposite.
“It’s exciting for me,” Baptiste said. “You want to be part of a team, whether it’s in Buffalo or Rochester, that’s competitive and trying to make the playoffs and ultimately winning championships. That’s the goal for the organization. That’s been made clear.
“Youth needs to be part of the movement forward. You see Pittsburgh and where Botterill’s come from, you see the young players they have and how well they played, not only during the season but in the playoffs. I’m one of those guys that wants to step in and be a player that can provide at the National Hockey League level.”
Bailey is also energized.
“Every year they bring in new guys,” he said. “Every year there’s going to be competition for jobs. Every year I’m pushing for someone else’s job, and they’re pushing for mine. You see that. You see the guys coming in, but the more you focus on that, the more it’s going to take you off your game.
“I’m focusing on development camp right now, then in September I’ll focus on hopefully coming in here and stealing a job and solidifying myself on this team.”
Bailey got 32 games last year, recording two goals and four points. Left wing is the Sabres’ thinnest position, so the 22-year-old has a shot to make an impact. He has the speed that Botterill and Housley seek, and he’s bulked his 6-foot-3 frame up to 220 pounds.
“I felt last year there were times when I would beat a guy but maybe get nudged a little bit and get knocked off my skates,” he said. “I’m focusing on bulking up but keeping that speed that separates me from other guys.”
Baptiste also feels ready to graduate from the American Hockey League. The right winger had 25 goals and 41 points in 59 games with the Amerks. During 14 games with the Sabres, he had three goals and four points.
“Spots are open, and we’ve talked about the opportunity to work to get those spots,” the 21-year-old said.
Fasching was on the Sabres’ opening-night roster but suffered a severe groin injury just a month into the season. It hindered him all year and kept his totals down. The right winger had one assist in 10 games with Buffalo. He recorded eight goals and 12 points in 37 games with the Amerks.
The 21-year-old is healthy now. While he doesn’t have the speed of Bailey and Baptiste, he makes up for it by being sound positionally and tough to handle near the net.
“They’re looking for offensive guys,” Fasching said. “You want to continue to keep working hard, kind of press the limits of your game and see where you end up. You never want to pencil one place or another. You just want to do the best that you can and position yourself the best you can moving forward.
“I haven’t had a ton of time to sit down with them and see what they saw with my past performances, things like that. It’s hard to tell where you stand right now, so from that aspect is a clean slate and just keep moving forward.”
As development camp veterans, the forwards are charged with setting the right example. If they succeed, that could help them earn a spot in Buffalo just as much as their actions on the ice.
Buffalo is looking for the right players and the right people to turn around the organization.
“That was Jason Botterill’s message to the kids today: The on ice is only one part,” Sabres Assistant GM Randy Sexton said. “The more important part and the part that we’re really watching for is how do you handle yourself off the ice? How do you take advantage of all the incredible resources that we have here to help you help yourself get better?
“That’s really the focus of this camp. It’s not about stops and starts and bag skates. It’s about helping each of these young players access the resources they need to be as good as they’re capable of becoming."