Longtime Sabres beat writer Bill Hoppe of BuffaloHockeyBeat.com, is writing about Sabres prospects, the Rochester Americans and related topics this season.
ROCHESTER — After earning his first regular NHL duty last season, a confident Nick Baptiste signed a new contract and expected he would stay in the Sabres organization.
Not only did Baptiste, 23, play a career-high 33 games, he impressed the Sabres’ new regime enough to spend the final two months in Buffalo.
“It was a good end of the season for me,” Baptiste said prior to scoring the Toronto Marlies’ first goal in Friday’s 4-1 win against the Americans in the North Division semifinal playoff opener. Game 2 is Sunday.
But by the end of training camp this season, Baptiste, like a lot of other Sabres prospects selected by past general managers, was out of the team’s plans.
On Sept. 29, the Sabres waived the former third-round pick. Two days later, they traded him to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Jack Dougherty.
“When I re-signed, I was looking forward to being in Buffalo, Rochester — wherever I was going to be,” Baptiste said in Blue Cross Arena.
Baptiste has no bitterness toward the Sabres — “It was a great couple years that I was here,” he said — and chalks the trade up to the “business” of hockey.
“I understand how things happen,” Baptiste said.
The last seven months have been a whirlwind for the speedy winger.
Baptiste played 55 games with the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators’ American Hockey League affiliate. While he earned a short recall to Nashville, he didn’t play.
Then on Feb. 24, the Predators dealt him to the Toronto Maple Leafs for future considerations. The Leafs immediately assigned him to the Marlies, the defending Calder Cup champions.
“It’s been a different year for me,” said Baptiste, who scored a career-high 25 goals in only 59 games with the Amerks two years ago.
Baptiste struggled to showcase his scoring prowess during the regular season, compiling only 14 goals in 73 games, including two in 18 appearances with the Marlies.
“Not the way I would’ve envisioned this year, but there’s ups and downs in a hockey career,” Baptiste said. “I can’t act like it’s on anyone but myself. I need to play better this season and I haven’t so far.
“But the best thing about the playoffs is it’s a new season. You’re able to establish yourself and really make a name for yourself in the playoffs.”
Baptiste got off to a great start Friday, burying Chris Mueller’s rebound past Amerks goalie Scott Wedgewood 2:53 into the second period.
Having been dealt from his first organization, Baptiste has reached a new stage of his career in his fourth pro season. He’s still young enough to be considered a prospect but he’s becoming a known commodity.
“I’ve played a few years pro now, I’m not a rookie,” Baptiste said. “I’m only 23 years old, so I’m not a veteran, older guy yet. But I’m not quite a young prospect anymore, so it’s finding my niche professionally.”
The Marlies acquired Baptiste because they needed scoring. Three notable wingers — Sam Gagner, Carl Grundstrom and Trevor Moore — have been traded or recalled this season.
Despite his limited offense with the Marlies, Baptiste’s other contributions — he kills penalties, for example — have impressed coach Sheldon Keefe.
“He’s a guy that’s continued to work every single day and doesn’t seem to be frustrated or down because pucks aren’t going in,” Keefe said. “He’s had a number of scoring chances here, they just haven’t gone in for him.”
Keefe understands bouncing around and struggling to score have made this “a bit of a difficult season” for Baptiste.
“He’s had to find his way not just being in situations with new organizations and teammates, but also just trying to adapt to be able stay in the lineup consistently,” Keefe said.
Joining Toronto’s organization and experiencing their culture has been special for Baptiste, who grew up a Leafs fan in Ottawa. He still wears No. 13 for Hall of Famer Mats Sundin, his favorite player.
“They do things on a top level, top class,” Baptiste said. “You get treated the right way, the resources are there for you and the expectations are high.”