BUFFALO -- When the Buffalo Sabres open training camp Thursday, competition for a place among the forwards is expected to be intense, especially among four prospects competing for one top-six spot.
Forwards Justin Bailey, Nicholas Baptiste, Hudson Fasching and Alexander Nylander are in the hunt for a place among a group that includes Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart.
During the Prospect Challenge in Buffalo, Bailey, Baptiste and Fasching were alternate captains, and led the way on and off the ice with their play and how they guided the younger players in camp. Nylander missed the final two games of the tournament because of a lower-body injury sustained during a 4-3 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils on Friday.
"Expectations are high and they almost try to do too much with the puck, but I thought you saw guys like Bailey, Baptiste and Fasching play hard throughout the entire time, really try hard to implement what we're trying to do from a system standpoint and really competed hard in a lot of the drills, and also take it to heart," Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said. "They did a great job in just behind the scenes getting practices going, keeping the pace of play, keeping the group together, and overall I thought they did an outstanding job."
Bailey may have an edge in the competition because he's played 40 NHL games, including 32 last season when he had four points (two goals, two assists), but it's not something he's taking for granted.
"Obviously I have that NHL experience," he said. "I'm fortunate enough to have it. Those are actually games I have on those guys. But at the same time, until I establish myself in the NHL, it's going to be the same thing every single summer coming in here and earning a job. So the extra games are nice, but at the same time I have to come out there and do the small things and do the small things well."
Baptiste made his NHL debut last season and had four points (three goals, one assist) in 14 games. He believes the internal competition is something that drives everyone to be better.
"All of us want to make the team this year, that's no secret," he said. "There's potential for guys at my position, like myself, to crack the roster this year and that's been my goal all summer long and that's what I've worked towards. Myself, Justin, Hudson, and [defenseman] Brendan [Guhle] all had great games and three of us are older and guys that need to lead this younger group in this tournament, but also moving forward in everyone's career."
Since there are four forwards potentially competing for one spot in the NHL, it means Rochester of the American Hockey League will reap the benefits. All four players spent the majority of last season in the AHL, and growing together and becoming better players together at that level can pay off for the entire organization.
"We all know [the competition] is there, obviously, but I said it before, we're friends and we get along, we're teammates still and we're trying to win hockey games at the end of the day," Fasching said. "We're not wishing poorly for each other out there. We're hoping to win a game. That's the whole point, to win hockey games. As much as there's competition, it's still a team game …
"To have a winning culture in both the NHL and the AHL has been said multiple times around the program and I think that's incredibly important. I mean, that's something that's huge. [If] you're losing in Rochester and you get called up, you get worn down a little bit almost. To be winning hockey games and to do it on a consistent basis is huge and I think to have that commitment it shows a lot of the character of the guys we have working with us."
While the forward prospects compete against each other, Guhle will be going against a group of veteran defensemen for ice time. His performance at the Prospect Challenge was impressive, but he'll have to continue to shine when training camp begins.
"The best thing about Guhle, obviously, is his skating," Rochester coach Chris Taylor said. "His first three steps he can pull away from anybody, especially on a breakout. He's headsy, he's really good. He can dish the puck, he can shoot the puck, and he's got some hockey smarts. Even defensively, his game, his reach with the stick on the puck a lot, his penalty killing was really good. Guys that can skate on defense like that, that have offensive instincts like he does, they're hard to come by."