Longtime Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com, will be writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
ROCHESTER – Justin Bailey and Chris Taylor go back a few years.
In Bailey’s rookie season three years ago, Taylor, then an assistant coach with the Rochester Americans, helped the youngster adjust to the AHL and his new life as a pro hockey player.
The Williamsville native quickly developed a trust in Taylor, now the Amerks’ head coach.
“He was someone my first year that was really, really big for me,” said Bailey, who earned a promotion to the Buffalo Sabres five months into his first season.
Now, though, Bailey, 23, is no longer one of the organization’s top prospects. The winger is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he played only 49 total games. The Sabres waived him earlier this month. After he cleared, they assigned him to the Amerks to begin his fourth AHL campaign.
Following Bailey’s minus-3 performance in an opening night loss last Friday, Taylor scratched him the next night. The Amerks wanted more attention to the details from Bailey and a better effort.
“It’s not the way I wanted to start the season,” Bailey said Wednesday after returning to the lineup in a fourth line and penalty-killing role. “It’s part of the game. It definitely sucked.”
In a hallway outside the dressing room in Blue Cross Arena following his 161st AHL appearance, Bailey was introspective discussing his career and belief in Taylor.
Bailey said clearing waivers is “definitely a wake-up call.” He’s cognizant he must start showcasing the talents that helped him compile 43 goals over his first two AHL seasons.
“I got to get back to what I was doing my first couple years,” he said. “I was having success scoring and competing. (I was) playing my best hockey probably my first couple years. Last year was a tough year with injuries.
“I just got to get back to playing with speed, playing with a lot of passion and making sure I get back on the right track.”
The former second-round pick said Taylor’s guidance is key to getting on that track.
“I trust him, I trust in what he’s got going for me,” Bailey said. “Even though sometimes that’s tough, I think he’s got my best interests at heart.”
So to ignite Bailey and help him get back to the NHL, Taylor benched him, a move he said the former AHL All-Star wasn’t happy about.
“We don’t want anybody to be happy that they’re being sat out,” Taylor said.
Taylor, who played 149 NHL games, said, “Everybody goes through waivers.” He said he experienced the process about 15 times over his 19-year pro career.
To Taylor, passing through waivers isn’t a bad thing for Bailey.
“It just means that he’s got to realize it’s time to keep getting better and better and climbing and doing all the little things,” Taylor said. “I’ve never given up on Justin at all. I’ve never given up on anybody. …
“It’s how you respond and what you’re doing. I think Justin’s got a long future. We’re trying to get him back to where he wants to be at.”
Bailey, who grew up a rabid Sabres fan, said he still sees a future in Buffalo.
“It’s a dream for me every day to be able to be a part of this organization,” he said. “I’ve been here for six years. It’s a dream being close to home, dream being able to put that jersey on when I could. Yeah, I want to be here for as long as I can.”
At his best, the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Bailey is a speedy power forward with a scoring touch. Late in Wednesday’s 6-3 win against the Syracuse Crunch, he displayed those talents, bursting down the right wing and creating a scoring chance.
“I think my third period tonight is how I want to play,” Bailey said. “I think I can help the team out. My speed, my size and pushing the pace is definitely how I need to play.”
Taylor liked Bailey’s second effort this season a lot more than the first one.
“His PK was good, good stick,” Taylor said. “That’s where we need him – create some energy, get on the forecheck, use his body and use his speed. He’s got all of that.”