Prior to joining the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League this season, Justin Bailey never realized just how easy he had it on the ice.
"I thought coming into the OHL would be a little easier than it was," Bailey told NHL.com. "Throughout my hockey career, it's been easy and nice to play."
Kitchener coach Steve Spott knew there would be a learning curve for his prized recruit, who joined the Rangers from the Under-16 Long Island Royals midget team in Kings Park, N.Y.
"I don't think our young players, including those from minor-midget drafts, know how good of a league this is," Spott told NHL.com. "You're playing against the best players in the world in your age group, sometimes two or three years older. I think Justin learned real quickly how different it was."
In his third game with the Rangers, Bailey received his welcome-to-the-OHL moment when he was on the receiving end of a huge hit delivered by Calgary Flames prospect Patrick Sieloff of the Windsor Spitfires on Sept. 27. Bailey suffered a concussion on the play, and Sieloff was issued a charging penalty and game misconduct.
"Getting hit like that was something I could have gotten away with last year," Bailey said. "It was really tough. As a rookie, and kind of being on the lower end of the food chain there, it was tough to adjust to."
Bailey missed five games and was forced to sit out the inaugural USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, which was played at First Niagara Center in his hometown of Buffalo.
At the time of his injury, the 6-foot-3.25, 194-pound right wing had zero points and four penalty minutes in three games.
"As much as you never want to see a player get hurt, [the hit] might have been a real eye-opener for Justin to recognize how much respect he has to have for the level of competition," Spott said.
When he returned to the lineup Oct. 19, Bailey had 17 goals, 36 points and a plus-22 rating in 54 games.
"I think the biggest stride he has made is being able to know how to play a complete game. That includes sharing the puck with people around him," Spott said. "When he came in, he was able to do things by himself and now he understands the concept of playing without the puck, and that's probably been his greatest stride."
It was only a year ago Bailey was helping lead the Pat LaFontaine-coached Long Island Royals to the Under-16 Tier I national championship. He had 21 goals and 34 points in 22 games, and at the time was offered a full hockey scholarship to attend Michigan State University. His Canadian Hockey League rights were owned by Kitchener, which drafted him in the seventh round (No. 128) of the 2011 OHL Priority Selection.
"I've learned a lot and grown a lot from the coaches and players and gained experience in the league," Bailey said of his first OHL season. "I think things to work on would be consistency."
Consistency is an area of his game that certainly has improved. Bailey closed January with points in eight of the team's last 10 games. In February, he notched a point in seven of the team's last 10 games, producing four goals and 11 points.
The fact he found some chemistry with linemates Brent Pedersen and Josh Sterk played a big part in Bailey's success down the stretch.
2013 NHL DRAFT
Central Scouting releases final ranksBy Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
NHL Central Scouting has released its final rankings of the top draft-eligible skaters and goaltenders from North America and Europe. READ MORE ›
"That '95 Line' was really solid," Spott said of the trio of players born in 1995. "You have a little bit of everything on that line and the three have found nice chemistry working with each other. That's going to be a good line for a couple of years in our organization. Ultimately, though, Justin is the key guy on that line because of his skill set."
Bailey, whom NHL Central Scouting rated No. 38 among North American skaters in its final ranking of the top prospects for the 2013 NHL Draft, said skating with and watching former Kitchener players and current NHL players Gregory Campbell, Gabriel Landeskog, Dennis Wideman and Steve Eminger also opened his eyes to how hard he needed to work.
"Those guys are around our team regularly and for a player like Justin, it's invaluable," Spott said. "Not just the practices, but the off-ice workouts and the intensity of the training. I think it really was an eye-opener for him."
It seems like Bailey now understands the hard work necessary to becoming an NHL player.
"Especially when you see guys like Campbell and Landeskog … how much intensity they show and the will they have to make themselves a lot better," he said. "That's something I would like to work on.
"With Landeskog, you would never see him and say, 'Wow there's the youngest captain in NHL history,'" Bailey said. "He's just like any other player when you talk to him. I wasn't there to experience what his leadership qualities were in Kitchener, and I'm sure they were great, but he just fit right into the locker room and was all business on the ice. He did everything at 100 percent, and it was cool to skate with a guy like that."
Bailey is very much looking forward to this year's draft, which will be held June 30 at Prudential Center, in Newark, N.J.
"He's a big guy, skates well and handles the puck well," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "He's gotten used to the OHL game and adjusted well after starting out slow. He was hit harder than any time last year, but that made him a stronger player. He definitely has upside."