Nicholas Baptiste watched the offseason moves just like everyone else. He saw the players the Buffalo Sabres added, including veteran Jeff Skinner, the Stanley Cup-winning Conor Sheary, and the up-and-coming Tage Thompson.
It didn't surprise Baptiste. Not when the Sabres finished with the worst record in the National Hockey League.
"Whenever you finish in not a good position you want to improve for the next season and I think management has done a good job bringing guys in. So definitely that's competition, but it's something we all look forward to," Baptiste said Monday afternoon after another hard practice in HarborCenter. He was part of the group not making the trip to Columbus for the Sabres' preseason opener against the Blue Jackets. Baptiste is among those expected to play in Tuesday's preseason game in Buffalo.
Competition can be beneficial for everyone, pushing players to become better and sharper in order to earn, or keep, a roster spot. But the added competition didn't necessarily change much for Baptiste. It couldn't. See, the one thing the 23-year-old has learned in his three seasons as a professional hockey player is that he can't try to change who he is. So it doesn't matter who is around him. Baptiste has to play to his strengths (his speed) and work on his weaknesses (play in the defensive zone) in an attempt to make his first NHL roster out of training camp.
That task won't be easy. The group of forwards in Sabres camp is deep and fierce.
"You're definitely aware of everything that happens in the offseason. You know the spots and you know how many guys they brought in," Baptiste said. "You've just got to stay focused and play your game. You can't worry too much about that side of it. You've got to make sure you're at your best and hopefully that will be enough to help you and make you move forward."
Baptiste has been working at moving forward, and finding his footing, since he signed his entry-level contract and turned pro for the 2015-16 season. A third-round draft pick in 2013, he spent that first season in Rochester. Baptiste made his NHL debut with the Sabres on Feb. 19, 2017, against Chicago and played in 14 games that season with Buffalo, notching three goals and one assist.
He split time last year between the Sabres and Amerks, playing 33 games in Buffalo (four goals, two assists, minus-4), and 36 games in Rochester (seven goals, 11 assists, plus-three).
A restricted free agent, he signed a one-year deal with the Sabres over the summer and got to work.
"I wanted to improve on all sorts of aspects," Baptiste said. "Speed is a big part of my game so I wanted to be sure to keep that up and keep that at an elite level, and being good at the net and being someone that the coach can trust defensively. I've said it a number of times here – you've got to be able to play in your own end. I think that's something I've tried to work on, just board battles and being better on the walls and being able to work from my own end out.
"Everyone's battling. Everyone's working hard to earn a spot, especially for guys who haven't been here for years and years, right? I want to continue to work hard and continue to do the little things that have gotten me to this point. I've just got to keep working, keep focusing on my game."
And with an opportunity to put some distance from the dismal reality that was last season, Baptiste has been able to find the valuable lessons, apply them, and move on.
"Obviously, you don't want to be in a situation where you're not winning," Baptiste said. "The biggest thing for us is just focusing and taking it day by day. Just to play with high intensity and not take a day off, not take a shift off, not take a workout off. It's been very businesslike but everyone's enjoying themselves, which is very important.
"You've got to come to the rink ready to work. Guys have to come ready to work and work hard and I think that's what's happened these last few days. Everyone's put their best foot forward and that's from the top down. Everyone's pulling the same way."