When you’re a talented prospect coming out of college and you’re a free agent, the world is your oyster.
That’s the position Casey Bailey found himself in last week, when Penn State was eliminated from NCAA title contention.
“It’s something I had in the back of my mind the entire time but I thought I did a pretty good job of keeping it in the back of my mind and tried not to let it affect my game.”
When you enter the draft and take the traditional route, your fate is decided by the draft. But Bailey had his choice from the over a dozen teams that expressed interest in his services.
Bailey led the NCAA’s Big 10 conference in goals with 22. He finished with 40 points leading the conference in shots on goal, averaging 5.7 per game.
In the end, Bailey chose Toronto, citing a 30-minute conversation he had with Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan as the biggest factor.
“I wasn’t sure about where I was going, there was a lot of options,” said Bailey, shortly after taking part in his first practice on Wednesday. “The opportunity here and what he saw and what he said to me made me comfortable with coming here.”
The Leafs are in the midst of transforming their franchise after a disappointing season. Some moves have been made at the deadline to clear the decks for younger talent to get more opportunity.
The stars were aligned.
“He was definitely a big part of it,” Bailey said of Shanahan. “He’s got a vision to develop his players and turn this place around. I think, just the respect I have for him and his history, he really just talked to me and told me the things he liked about my game. I think he’s really going to give me the chance to develop and get better here.”
Bailey’s opportunity is tremendous. But by no means does it guarantee success at the NHL level.
While players like Tyler Bozak present an example for Bailey, Leafs interim coach Peter Horachek recalls a player he saw during his time with the Panthers who couldn’t adapt to the elements of the NHL game, and saw himself playing in the ECHL the following year.
“The transition is the biggest thing I find, and strength and maturity. Those are the three things,” said Horachek. “Are you mature enough? Are you strong enough? And how quick the puck can go from one end of the ice to the other. That’s a big difference.”
Bailey is expected to make his NHL debut on Thursday night when the Maple Leafs host the Florida Panthers. He’ll have an opportunity to ride out the rest of the season in the NHL before the real work will begin in the offseason. The developmental additions the Leafs have made in the off-season will be at Bailey’s disposal.
Tyler Bozak recalled spending time with other college signings Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg. All three of them spent time in the summer of 2009 working with Leafs strength and conditioning coach Anthony Belza, in anticipation of the increased workload that comes at the professional level.
“The biggest adjustment is just the amount of games you play and stuff like that,” Bozak said. “But playing college you get a lot of time to work out and train so I think that helped me a lot coming in and helped me to adjust to more games a bit better.”
As Bailey learns the ropes, his expectations are realistic.
“I’m still working on a lot of parts of my game. I’m not an NHL All-Star by any means. I want to hone in on my game and get better while I’m up here and I’m sure get better while I’m down with the Marlies if that happens.”
Bailey is an economics major and fully intends to complete his degree once his hockey career is done.