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Justin Bailey eager to take next career step to NHL

Sabres forward prospect hoping speed, size add up to full-time role

by Joe Yerdon / Correspondent

BUFFALO -- If there's a term to describe the status of Buffalo Sabres forward prospect Justin Bailey, it's "progress."

Ever since Bailey was selected in the second round (No. 52) by the Sabres in the 2013 NHL Draft, he has steadily improved at each level.

His points totals rose in each of his three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, from 36 (17 goals, 19 assists) to 43 (24 goals, 19 assists) to 69 (34 goals, 35 assists) with Kitchener and Sault Ste. Marie.

Last season, his first as a professional, he scored 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 70 games with Rochester of the American Hockey League.

Bailey, 21, is poised to make Buffalo's roster out of training camp.

"I think for me, it starts right now," Bailey said during the Sabres Prospects Challenge last weekend. "They saw me in July [at development camp] and now they'll see me … in preseason games and so on. For me, it's just keeping consistent.

"My game is played with speed, it's played fast, and it's played physical down low and getting to pucks first and making plays that way. I think they liked what they saw last year. I don't think I'd be in this situation if they didn't like what they saw, and for me, I've just got to do those things that I know help me succeed; playing fast and doing those small things."

Bailey had a strong first season in the AHL, leading to his NHL debut Feb. 11 at the Philadelphia Flyers. He played in seven more games with the Sabres but didn't have a point.

"I've been trying to find things that work for me in the summer and trying to keep those consistent," he said. "I know the year after I got drafted I had a great year in junior, and then last year I was fortunate enough to have a good year in Rochester. I've been building every single year and getting better the whole season.

"I try to see those things, watch a little bit of tape of those NHL games. While it was short, I still got to see the speed and everything what it was like. So for me, it's just noticing what I need to work on and try to get a little bit better at those during the summer."

Among the items stressed during development camp in July were playing with speed and quick decision-making. New Americans coach Dan Lambert, who was one of Sabres coach Dan Bylsma's assistants in Buffalo last season, said he loves Bailey's speed but knows there's more he'll have to do to become a full-time NHL player.

"It's hard not to pay attention to his skating ability and his size (6-feet-3, 209 pounds)," Lambert said. "I think when he gets better at protecting pucks, I think his game will really take off. it's something that I know that he's worked on and he's going to continue to work on, but his skating and his size are two things that are impressive."

Bailey will have plenty of company as he competes for a shot at making the NHL. Forwards William Carrier, Nick Baptiste, and Alexander Nylander, the No. 8 pick at the 2016 NHL Draft, also will be vying for a spot in Buffalo. Bailey's experience and ability to improve year by year may give him a leg up.

"It's just the speed of the game," he said. "Every time you go up a level, it's the speed. Guys are smarter, guys are faster. When I went to the NHL, it was quick. I think in-zone, getting pucks rimmed or even directly to me and making the correct play; you look at guys that do that consistently and those guys have jobs for a while.

"Just little things in the [defensive] zone, making plays a little bit quicker. But I think that's something that, along with working with it, just comes along after playing more games and getting more experience."

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