Bailey thinking less, impacting more

September 11, 2017

Justin Bailey isn’t too worried about the game he plays on the ice.

Sure, there are things in his game that need improvement if he is to earn a spot on the Buffalo Sabres roster. But the third-year right winger is progressing nicely.

It’s the game he played in his head that had him a little concerned.

So over the summer Bailey spent some time talking with a sports psychologist. He wanted to eliminate a tendency to instantaneously think negative thoughts when he didn’t score on a great chance or turned the puck over.

Don’t get flustered, just keep working.

The Prospects Challenge gave him his first chance to test-drive the new clear-mind approach. So far he likes the results.

“I’m keeping an even keel,” he said on Monday, when the Sabres lost 5-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the challenge finale at HarborCenter. “If something doesn’t go my way, just hit the reset button.”

Like on Saturday in a game against the Boston Bruins. He was denied on a breakaway just 3:30 into the game but didn’t worry about when the shift ended. Or at any other point in the game.

It’s a quality athletes need. Sure, you can draw resolve from losses and be determined to atone for mistakes, but you don’t want the negative dragging you down. That’s what he wanted to work on.

“Just stuff in my head that I thought was a weak spot in my game,” he said. “I’d be thinking after a shift if I didn’t score, ‘When am I going to get back out there’ or ‘That’s what they’re going to remember.’ ”

Bailey finished the Prospects Challenge with two goals, one assist and eight shots on goal. He scored a goal Saturday and another on Monday.

The production was solid. The overall performance was noteworthy.

Some would say a player like Bailey should be impactful in a prospects tournament. He’s coming into his third pro season while a large percentage of teammates and opponents still have junior eligibility. He also has played 40 NHL games, including 32 last season with the Sabres (2 goals, 2 assists, 4 points), and now he’s attacking against defensemen who are just 18 and 19.

But the pro experience combined with a belief he should dominate can be a detriment, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said.

“This is sometimes a difficult tournament for a player that’s a third-year player who has played NHL games,” Botterill said. “The expectations are high to try to do too much with the puck.”

Botterill and Chris Taylor, the Rochester Americans head coach who ran the Sabres bench in the Prospects Challenge, liked what they saw from their group. Buffalo finished 1-2 but the players did a lot of what the organization wanted to see.

“Although the group was pretty nervous trying to make that first impression the first night, I really liked what I saw,” Botterill said. “I thought it was an outstanding weekend.”

No one earned a job with the Sabres on the weekend. But they made impressions, from the invitees who don’t have a contract to the players who will battle for an open spot on right wing in Buffalo, like Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching and Alex Nylander.

Bailey was actually in this position last year. A great camp would have vaulted him into the Sabres lineup. Instead, he was among the group of first reassignments to Rochester.

He’s not by any means overconfident about his place on the depth chart. Yes, he has more NHL experience than the players he is competing against. But the coaching staff and management team is new. They’ll base decisions on what they see.

Bailey knows that. He must prove he’s ready.

“Until I establish myself in the NHL, it’s going to be the same,” he said.

His skating has always been a huge asset. He has upper-end NHL acceleration. But he is still learning how to use his 6-foot-3, 214-pound frame more to his advantage. He was consistently more assertive this weekend than during his first two pro seasons.

“He has to be,” Taylor said. “He’s got a big body, he’s an athlete.”

The weekend gave him just what he needed, too.

“I said this before, I’m not using this to get ready for the main camp,” Bailey said, “it’s something to gain momentum from going into camp.”

Nylander sits out (again): Nylander again was kept out of Monday’s game, just as he was on Saturday, because of a lower body ailment. Botterill said it’s not serious. “There’s no need to push anything in a prospects camp,” Botterill said. “We wanted to take care of it now so it’s not a nagging thing.”

Guhle was a standout: Defenseman Brendan Guhle had a goal and two assists in Monday’s game, matching his production from Saturday. He finished the challenge with 2-4-6.

Fasching does a lot of good: Taylor was complimentary of his entire group but noted Fasching’s strong game on Monday, especially as a penalty killer.

Eichel contract update: There isn’t one, other than Botterill saying the sides “continue to be very cordial in our discussions.”

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Kevin Oklobzija
About Kevin Oklobzija

Kevin Oklobzija is a contributor to The Buffalo Star, a veteran hockey writer and member of the Rochester Americans Hall of Fame. He still believes National Lampoon’s Vacation may be the best movie ever made.

Browse more articles by Kevin Oklobzija.

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