The Buffalo Sabres expect forwards Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Evan Rodrigues to be pillars in the team’s rebuilding process to respectability and Stanley Cup contention.
But for now, they can be found behind pillars inside the Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, home of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
“In the locker room, there’s a corner of the room where there’s a couple of pillars and it’s kind of tough to see in that corner,” Bailey told me recently. “That’s where they stuck me, Evan and Nick. I think it’s kind of a rookie thing.”
It’s about 75 miles from Blue Cross Arena to First Niagara Center, the Sabres home barn. Only a one-hour, 15-minute drive from Rochester to Buffalo via Interstate 90, Bailey, Baptiste and Rodrigues are so close to their National Hockey League dreams. Yet they’re so far.
As rookies, even highly-touted ones, they have dues to pay in the AHL: getting obstructed-view lockers, staying on the ice after practice to collect all the pucks, cleaning the inside of the team bus after road games.
And there are lessons to learn on the ice. The three are finding their way with the Amerks after posting gaudy numbers in the Ontario Hockey League and the NCAA.
“I think it’s just the size and speed and making quick decisions, making sure you’re in the right places defensively,” Baptiste, a Sabres 2013 third-round draft pick, said of the adjustment from Canadian major junior hockey to the pro ranks. “Obviously, goal-scoring and points are tougher in this league. I don’t think my numbers are exactly where I want them to be. But if I keep playing the right way, it will all fall into place.”
Baptiste is currently fifth on the Amerks in scoring with 3 goals and 6 assists in 19 games. Bailey is tied for sixth on the team with 2 goals and 6 assists in 20 games. Rodrigues has 2 goals and 4 assists in 19 games.
In the OHL, Baptiste had 32 goals and 32 assists in 53 games in 2014-15 with the Sudbury Wolves and Erie Otters. He scored 12 goals and 11 assists for the Otters in 19 playoff games last season.
He played with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid,
the first player chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft, in Erie last season and with Sabres forward Jack Eichel, the 2015 draft’s Number Two pick from Boston University, during Buffalo’s training camp.
“They’re similar in their speed and the way they see the game,” Baptiste said. “I think Eichel is a bit more of a power guy. He takes wide net a lot with a lot more power, drives hard to the net. I think McDavid is a little more finesse, makes more moves, has a little more stick skill with the puck going to the net. But they’re equally talented. They’re both very good.”
Bailey notched 34 goals and 35 assists in 57 games last season for the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He tallied 7 goals and 7 assists for the Greyhounds in 14 playoff games.
“The first couple of months, there’s been a lot of ups and downs, but I’m definitely starting to settle in now and getting more comfortable,” Bailey, Buffalo’s 2013 second-round draft pick, said of his time in Rochester thus far. “But it’s definitely a huge adjustment.”
Rodrigues and Eichel were teammates at Boston University. Rodrigues scored 21 goals and 40 assists in 41 games for the NCAA Division I Terriers. He keeps up with Eichel, who is seventh among NHL rookies in scoring with 8 goals and 4 assists in 24 games.
“We’ve been in touch a little bit here and there, kind of seeing how each other is doing,” said Rodrigues, who signed with the Sabres as a free agent in April.
And the three Rochester rookies keep close tabs on each other – at the rink and away from it. They commiserate and encourage each other in their obstructed-view portion of the Americans’ locker room.
Bailey and Baptiste are roomies in Rochester. “We kind of became close friends in training camp and playing against each other in the OHL, so it was a no-brainer,” Baptiste said.
Playing for the Americans is a bit of a homecoming for Bailey. He grew up in Williamsville, N.Y., about 65 miles from Rochester. Whenever he’s tired of doing his own cooking – or Baptiste’s – or needs help with laundry, he hits I-90 and heads to his mother’s home.
Karen Buscaglia says it’s a blessing, not a burden, when her son arrives hungry with a pile of dirty clothes. “Having him close means yay!!” she told me recently.
It also means less wear and tear on the family car. Bailey’s mother and his grandparents attend almost every Amerks home game, just as they attended nearly all of Bailey’s games in Kitchener, Ontario – about a two-hour drive from Williamsville. They even made it to some playoff games in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, a 10-hour trek.
“I think it’s so important to support his journey and have his back,” Buscaglia said in a email. “There are many ups and downs on this hockey ride and knowing no matter what happens on the ice you still have a support system that loves you and believes in you makes the journey more fun for him and us. Watching the joy it brings to his grandparents has been worth every road trip.”
It seems almost pre-ordained that Bailey will someday wear Buffalo blue in the NHL. His mother has always been a big fan of the team. Bailey was raised in a condo community where Sabres legends like Michael Peca, Rob Ray and Matthew Barnaby lived.
Bailey remembers going to a Sabres game when he was five or six years old and Barnaby flipping him a puck after the team’s pre-game warm up.
“Being a huge, huge Sabres fan, that was a huge thing getting a puck like that,” Bailey recalled. “I think that’s what started the dream.”
Now Bailey can almost see Buffalo from his view-challenged locker in Rochester.
“You never know who’s in the building,” he said of Blue Cross Arena. “The (Buffalo) GM could be here today or a scout could be here today watching you. It gives you that added incentive to play at the top of your game every night.”