Justin Bailey had a goal at the beginning of the 2018-19 season: make the Buffalo Sabres’ NHL squad. It didn’t happen, but he’s taking it as a learning experience and putting his nose to the grindstone in the hopes that he’ll be back in Buffalo sooner rather than later.
“You start the season with the goal of making the big team,” Bailey said. “Coming down here, I wanted to come and have a fast start and earn my way back up as quickly as I can. For it not to happen at the beginning [of the season] definitely is tough.”
Bailey appeared in four preseason games with the Sabres this September. He registered four shots on goal, six hits and one takeaway. For a player who came into training camp with high expectations placed on him - after several seasons in the AHL - it wasn’t quite enough to cut it.
The Sabres put Bailey on waivers on September 29, for the purpose of assigning him to the AHL’s Rochester Americans. It was Bailey’s first time being waiver-eligible in his professional career, after being waiver-ineligible for the first three years of his career.
Thirty other NHL teams had a chance to claim Bailey on waivers. All thirty teams passed on that opportunity, which is something that can be mentally tough on any player, according to Rochester Americans head coach Chris Taylor.
“Anytime you go through waivers for the first time, it’s something that affects people in different ways,” Taylor said. “I think he felt a little bad about himself that, you know, 30 teams passed on him.”
“It’s tough; I think he felt like maybe the organization gave up,” Taylor added. “We didn’t give up. It’s just part of his process. A lot of guys go through waivers, a lot of guys have to learn this way.”
For now, Bailey is learning “this way” - in the AHL - where he’s racked up five points in 12 games with the Amerks. He registered a pair of goals in Rochester’s 5-2 win over the Cleveland Monsters in Buffalo earlier this week, his first goals of the season.
His last NHL action came on March 21, when he played just over 11 minutes in the Sabres’ 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes. Bailey finished last season with five goals and three assists, 77 shots on goal and a minus-8 rating in 52 NHL games.
“He felt a little bit sorry for himself at the start, but he’s picked it up and he’s done a really good job and he’s learning how to play the way we want him to play,” Taylor said of the winger, pointing to Bailey’s penalty-killing and forecheck as areas that he’s making a difference in.
Using his speed and his knack for scoring, and continuing to bring a sense of assertiveness and intensity to the rink every night, Bailey can continue to improve his game. He’s leaned on family and friends - like NHL alumni Daniel Briere - for support along the way.
“He [Briere] went through something similar clearing waivers, in his third or fourth season,” Bailey said. “Now you look at the career he had, it’s kind of crazy.”
“We had a really good talk,” Bailey added. “He told me that he came down and put his head down and worked his butt off to come back up and never go back down.”
So for now, that’s what Bailey will do in Rochester, focusing on shooting, challenge the opposing team’s defense, and putting speed into every play, while trying to keep a clear head. The goal, however, remains the same: to play in Buffalo.
“It’s the end goal for all of us,” Bailey. “We want to make sure we’re playing for that reason - and we’re playing for first place.”
Heading into the weekend, Bailey and the Amerks are first in the AHL’s North Division with a 9-3-1-0 record and 19 points. They face the Syracuse Crunch (4-5-0-0) on Friday night.