Sometimes when a NHL teams decided to rebuild, the on-ice product isn’t always the best to watch. I don’t want to use the term “force”, but fans are turned to look at how the younger players are doing that are in the system. This season the Buffalo Sabres are poised to have a very early pick in the draft due to their performance on the ice. The term “losing properly” has come out in interviews with management, when asked about expectations and accusations of tanking on purpose in order to land one of the biggies in the draft.
One thing the Sabres have been able to do over the last several years is stock their minor league system. Sure it has been at the expense of some of their better players being shipped out of town, but nonetheless they seem to be moving in the right direction.
A player in the Sabres organization that has caught my attention as well as the rest of the Ontario Hockey League is Justin Bailey. Bailey, a western New York native, was selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 2013 entry draft. So far this season, Bailey has tallied 29 points (14 g – 15 a) in just 22 games, and has been named the OHL Player of the week. He is in his third season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, and is on pace to fly past his season-high point total which he set last season with 43.
Recently I had the privilege to speak with Bailey in a phone interview to talk about his season, the draft, signing his entry level contract with the Sabres, his future, among other things.
The Hockey Writers: When did you know that you wanted to be a hockey player?
Justin Bailey: I don’t think there was one specific time, but the passion for the game obviously grows more and more as I got older. I became more of a Sabres fan, watching their practices in the morning, and the passion just grew being from Buffalo.
THW: When did you realize you had the chance to do it professionally?
JB: To be honest, not until last summer. I had a lot of pleasant experiences being drafted in the NHL and the OHL and making the team in Kitchener.
THW: What has been your biggest mental or physical hurdle that you have had to overcome so far?
JB: You know I think injuries. I had my shoulder repaired when I was 15 or 16 and that was my draft year with the OHL. Making the jump to the OHL was tough and I had a concussion in my first five or six games which is tough being my draft year. Any injuries I think is something that’s tough but the experiences I have had so far will help me in the future.
THW: This is your third season in the OHL and you have had to play for a couple of different coaches. How hard is it to transition to their different styles?
JB: I think both of them (Steve Spott and Troy Smith), well their styles are similar. Obviously Coach Smith has been here before so it’s not like his style is completely new or had different ideas coming in. They both had pretty similar philosophies, you know, the way they do the day-to-day. It’s all pretty similar. I was fortunate enough to have a good relationship with Coach Smith before so the change was pretty easy.
THW: You are off to a terrific start this season, what has seemed to help?
JB: I had a really good summer workout wise. Being from Buffalo I was able to workout right at their facilities, right at the rink. It was tough for my team in Kitchener to not make the playoffs, we finished earlier than we wanted to, but at the same time it gave me extra prepare myself and lock it down and get workouts done. That is pretty much all I can think of that has helped me the most.
THW: Take us back to your draft day. What was it like to actually hear your name being called?
JB: You know it was special day for your family and for you since it was what you worked for. It was more special that it was Buffalo so I didn’t really have to go very far for all of that. It was special and I know my family was excited and now it is something in the back of my mind that is giving me motivation.
THW: Other than being picked, what sticks out in your mind the most about the day?
JB: Being on the floor and not being picked until the second round was tough. Your kind of just sitting there waiting, you have a few teams that call you going into the draft, I remember having interviews at the combine with possible teams I could be going to, then they pass over you. I remember going through and signing autographs then finally after a good hour or hour and a half you get to spend time with your family and that was special to me.
THW: The Sabres are struggling and are “all-in” on this re-build. What are your feeling on the direction they are heading?
JB: You look at the Chicago Blackhawks teams five or six years ago and were one of the teams that were really struggling in the NHL, and now look at them they are contenders. You have to take your bumps and bruises for a couple of seasons in order to head in the right direction.
THW: How were you approached by the organization before signing your entry level contract?
JB: The GM that drafted me (Darcy Reiger) left or was let go five or six months after I was drafted, so it was new management and it was a tough spot for me because I got hurt last year right at the end which was right at the time they switched GM’s, so it was tough for me and for them never have seen me play. I knew this summer was key for me and needed to do well at Traverse City.
THW: Have any of the current Buffalo Sabres reached out to you at all since signing?
JB: Yeah I worked out with a bunch of them this summer and became good buddies with Chris Stewart and Patrick Kaleta as well. They helped me out a lot with other guys as well. I heard “congrats” from many of them after I signed the contract.
THW: What do you think you will have to work on before making the jump to the next level?
JB: I think physically building strength to play against some of the older players. Its a big jump mentally as well, playing in an 82-game season is not easy on the mental side of things and how to handle yourself as a pro is important too.
THW: I heard you say in other interviews that you emulate your game after David Backes or Eric Staal. Do you still feel that way as you are progressing forward?
JB: A little bit I think. Obviously they are two really good players, I try to be more “Backes” sometimes, I don’t think I want to play exactly like him, but those are the two guys that anybody would want to play like.
THW: Have you ever thought about what it is going to be like lining up against them or even with them someday?
JB: Yeah there are a lot of guys that come to mind, you know guys that I look up to. Watching the game a few years ago and then actually getting the chance to lineup against them which I got in training camp. I played against Ryan Miller and I thought that was pretty cool. Watching the game on tv and seeing people shoot on him, then actually lining up on the same ice getting the chance to shoot on him myself.
THW: Did you score on him?
JB: I actually hit the post on a shootout. I think I may have had him there but it went off the post.
THW: The Buffalo Sabres have a very loyal fan base as you are aware being from Buffalo and having a Mother who is a Sabres fan. Is there anything you would like them to know for them to be excited about as you progress through the system?
JB: There is more to me than just another player coming to Buffalo. It has been something I have dreamed about my whole life playing in a Sabres sweater. Going into the draft there was a lot about me being a raw talent that has potential but isn’t there yet. Getting overlooked 51 times then being taken 52nd is fuel for the fire. I wasn’t picked where I thought I should have been picked, and I think going forward there are a lot of people to prove wrong and I am looking forward to it.
THW: So you have a little chip on your shoulder
JB: Yeah I think that is safe to say, the draft is two years in the past you know its still there (the chip on his shoulder), I have a lot to prove and it is something moving forward that is something I am looking forward to doing.
THW: Wait, did I congratulate you on being named player of the week?
JB: Well you just did so thank you.
John Is a contributor with The Hockey Writers covering the Buffalo Sabres. He is also a Senior Writer and Editor at MetsMerizedOnline.