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Sabres hope for Baptiste to bring speed to lineup

After being called up on Saturday, rookie is likely to make debut during three-game road trip

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

EDMONTON - Nick Baptiste saw his training camp cut short due to a back injury that he sustained while playing in a preseason game against Toronto, but he picked up right where he left off on opening night with the Rochester Americans. 

Baptiste scored a goal and an assist in the Amerks' win over Hershey, and was then paid a visit to his locker by Sabres assistant general manager Mark Jakubowski, who was in town to scout potential call-ups. Jakubowski told him his flight was at 9 a.m. 

 "My mom was in town actually which was nice," Baptiste said following practice on Saturday. "The first little while I was kind of excited, then you've got to park it a little bit. We play in two days, so I've got to be ready."

His performance for Rochester on Friday may have sealed the deal, but Baptiste began to earn his first career call-up with an impressive summer that began at development camp in July. He was a veteran among his peers at that camp, three seasons removed from his draft year, and performed accordingly: He scored a goal and an assist to help lead his team to victory.

His performance continued through all subsequent stages of the preseason. He scored a hat trick in one game at the Prospects Challenge in September, scored in an intrasquad scrimmage once pro camp opened and then tallied a goal and an assist in his first preseason exhibition. 

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said that Baptiste is "a good possibility" to make his NHL debut at some point during the team's current three-game road trip in Western Canada, which begins against the Oilers on Sunday. 

Baptiste's presence was made necessary by injuries to Jack Eichel (high-ankle sprain) and Evander Kane (cracked ribs). Those two forwards bring a great deal of speed to the Sabres' lineup, and the hope is that Baptiste can do the same. Buffalo's next two opponents in particular, Edmonton and Calgary, feature young forwards who can change the game with their speed in Connor McDavid and Johnny Gaudreau respectively.  

"You see it all over," Bylsma said. "You see it from young kids that are bringing it, providing it, and Nick is of that ilk. He has that speed, that power to his game and with the strong preseason that he's had he has a chance to do it here with us."

Baptiste first earned an assist on Friday by banking a breakout pass off the boards, and then used his most notworth tools - his speed up the right-wing side and his quick shot, which has proven to be deadly in open space - to notch his first goal of the season. Baptiste took his shot from the right circle and beat the goalie to the far side.

It was similar precision that got him this goal during the Blue & Gold Scrimmage.

Tweet from @BuffaloSabres: �� @NickBaptiste opens the scoring for Team Blue! #BlueAndGold

If he makes his debut on Sunday, he'll be doing so against McDavid, his former junior linemate with the Erie Otters. McDavid has gotten off to an explosive start with six points (3+3) in two wins over Calgary, and Baptiste knows his skill well.

"Connor is Connor, it's very rare you don't see him playing at his best," Baptiste said. "We've kept in touch and we've talked. If I get to play him tomorrow night, it will be pretty fun."

Kulikov improves

We already know that Kyle Okposo will make his Sabres debut against the Oilers, but it turns out that he might be joined in that regard by Dmitry Kulikov. Bylsma said that Kulikov "improved dramatically" in practice on Friday and is a possibility to be in the lineup come Sunday.

Kulikov has been nursing a lower-body bruise, which he sustained after being hit into the boards during Buffalo's preseason game against Toronto on Sept. 30. His physical nature would be especially welcome given the upcoming matchups with McDavid and Gaudreau.

"With skill players, they don't like a hard game and that's what we want them to play," said fellow defenseman Jake McCabe. "If their forecheck is heavy, we want to have big bodies on them and make it hard on them really. A skill player doesn't want a hard game, they want an easier game. That's not to say they're not competitive. But the harder it is for them, the easier it is on us."

Saturday's practice

23 Sam Reinhart - 90 Ryan O'Reilly - 21 Kyle Okposo
26 Matt Moulson - 28 Zemgus Girgensons - 52 Hudson Fasching /73 Nicholas Baptiste
63 Tyler Ennis - 27 Derek Grant - 44 Nicolas Deslauriers
82 Marcus Foligno - 22 Johan Larsson - 12 Brian Gionta

Defensemen: 4 Josh Gorges, 55 Rasmus Ristolainen, 29 Jake McCabe, 47 Zach Bogosian, 77 Dmitry Kulikov, 6 Cody Franson, 34 Casey Nelson

40 Robin Lehner
31 Anders Nilsson     

Power play
First Unit: O'Reilly - Moulson - Reinhart - Okposo - Ristolainen
Second Unit: Grant - Ennis - Gionta - McCabe - Franson

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