For three seasons, winger Justin Bailey often shuttled between Buffalo and Rochester, earning some NHL action while establishing himself as one of the Rochester Americans’ top scorers.
Bailey, 23, was used to the grind of being a prospect. But the Buffalo Sabres never yo-yo'd the Williamsville native back and forth almost daily.
After the Sabres traded Bailey to Philadelphia on Jan. 17, the Flyers assigned him to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, their American Hockey League affiliate.
On Feb. 10, the Flyers summoned Bailey for the first time. Over the next 38 days, he is listed 10 times on the AHL transactions page.
In the third week of March, he was recalled or sent down four straight days.
One time, Bailey was on his way back to Allentown when the Flyers called, saying a player was sick and they needed him.
“I went through the toll in Lehigh and got the call and I literally did a U-turn for the toll going to Philly and made the plane at 1 o’clock,” said Bailey, who was dealt to the Flyers for forward Taylor Leier.
He added: “It was a crazy year in that respect.”
Finally, on March 20, Bailey was called up and finished the season in the NHL. Overall, he played 11 games with the Flyers and 17 contests with the Phantoms.
Bailey’s story has been well documented over the years. He is a local kid who lived his dream by playing 52 games with the Sabres.
But by October, after the Sabres waived him and assigned him to the Amerks for a fourth season, it was clear he was out of their plans.
“I was really trying to hold on to any last hope of playing in Buffalo,” Bailey said. “That was my dream, to play for the Sabres. Even when times were tough in Rochester, I was leaning on a lot of people – my agent, (coach) Chris Taylor.
“I went to (Taylor) and talked to him a few times trying to figure out what was going on and why the minutes seemed to be down.”
Bailey said “it was tough realizing” leaving the Sabres would be best for his career.
“That’s something that had to happen,” he said.
Bailey, a second-round pick in 2013, 52nd overall, said switching organizations took some adjusting. Suddenly, everything was new.
“In Buffalo, I knew from the GM to the head coach all the way down to the guys on the finance team,” he said. “I feel like I knew everybody’s name, I knew every reporter’s name, I knew everybody.”
He added: “It was different, but I think the guys in both places – Lehigh and Philly – made it relatively easy for me to get to used to the adjustment.”
The 6-foot-4-inch, 214-pound Bailey is still adjusting to the NHL and how he can best use his size and speed.
The scoring prowess he has showcased in the AHL – he has two 20-goal seasons – has yet to translate. Through 63 NHL appearances, he has compiled five goals and nine points. He registered one assist with the Flyers.
What will it take for Bailey to stick in the NHL?
“My speed is there all the time,” he said. “I think that I need to be more physical consistently. I think there’s times I am physical and games where I have a few hits and I use my physical presence.”
Bailey’s speed allows him to win races to the puck, so he wants get over pucks and use his size to buy time and create offense around the net.
“From a career standpoint,” Bailey said, “I want so much more and believe I can do a lot more.”
Bailey said he recently called a 17-year-old black player from the Amherst Youth Hockey Association who endured racial taunts during a January game against the Cheektowaga Warriors 18-and-under team.
“It’s crazy how something like that is even going on this day in age,” Bailey said. “He’s such a good kid, such a nice kid. For him, I know he was excited that I was calling him.”
Bailey said he can relate to the teen because of the six-year age difference and what he experienced growing up.
“I wanted to connect with him on a more personal level,” he said.
Bailey said what he heard growing up has stopped.
The teen feels so comfortable talking to Bailey that the pro player said he often texts him following games. Bailey said he plans to take the teen’s family to dinner when he returns to Buffalo.