In a season that was forgettable for the Buffalo Sabres, the focus was shifted on the future of the organization and who could make the Sabres a different team just a few years from now.
To many around hockey, the Sabres have the top rated prospect pool amongst the other 29 National Hockey League teams.
And while the focus has been around the Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel sweepstakes this season, the players already drafted by the Sabres have proven their worth throughout the course of their seasons.
One prospect in particular has proven, in this postseason, that he is ready to take the leap from juniors to the professionals.
We wrote about Nick Baptiste before back in March, but that was when the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League were in the final weeks of its regular season. Just two months later, Baptiste has quickly shown that he will be ready come September when he makes the move to the Rochester Americans.
Baptiste finished the 2014-15 season in Erie with 26 goals and 17 assists in 41 games played with the Otters. Baptiste has been playing on a line with a 2015 NHL Draft top ten prospect Dylan Strome, and also Nick Betz.
Baptiste had started the year with the Sudbury Wolves before a trade in November brought him to the Otters to provide veteran depth and a touch of scoring.
Baptiste’s success has continued into the postseason with Erie, helping the Otters to the OHL Championship round against the Oshawa Generals.
In 19 games played with the Otters in the postseason, Baptiste has scored 12 goals and added eleven assists on top of that. Baptiste is tied with Dallas Stars prospect Remi Elie for second on the team’s scoring list with 23 points, only behind McDavid who leads the OHL scoring race in the postseason.
Where Baptiste has thrived is on home-ice in front of the hometown crowd. Baptiste has scored eleven of his 12 goals at home, and has 15 of his 23 points at home.
Baptiste’s best game of the playoffs came in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds when Baptiste netted four goals in a 7-5 victory over the Soo.
Although Baptiste’s season in Erie may come to a close on Friday as the Otters trail the Generals in the series three games to one, the progress he has made in Erie is ready to be transferred over to the AHL with the Amerks.
So what exactly can Baptiste bring to the table?
For the Otters, Baptiste is more than just a second-line left winger. Baptiste plays in all situations on the ice including the first powerplay unit with players like Strome, McDavid, and Elie. Baptiste is also a key member of the penalty kill, and is heavily relied on in late-game situations for Erie.
Baptiste, 6′ 0″, 196-pounds, plays a physical game for his size and can protect the puck well with his body. Baptiste is effective along the boards when the puck is in his corner, and brings some intensity to his game every time he steps onto the ice. Baptiste is also not afraid to park himself in front of the net and provide a screen, or be a nuisance for the opposing net-minder.
But the main factor of his game that is often looked over is his unique ability to find the back of the net. Whenever Baptiste has the puck on his stick, he has one thing on his mind: score. Baptiste has an underrated shot from the right side of the ice, where he has netted a lot of his goals this season.
Where can he improve his game?
Baptiste’s skating has never been the greatest asset, but he has some powerful strides that can make him an offensive threat. It is his skating on the defensive side that could use some work, as he often times gets caught watching the play too much and not continuously moving his feet.
Ever since his arrival in Erie, people in the Sabres organization have seen a drastic change in his game that show his promising future in the organization.
“I’ve seen a change in his game,” said Sabres general manager Tim Murray. “I’ve seen a more complete player here. He’s playing with better players and playing on a more competitive team. I think that has gotten him excited again. I believe that the [Otters] are doing a great job with him here, playing a 200 foot game instead of an offensive zone only game. So I am encouraged by his overall game, because we know in the National (Hockey) League, you can’t play unless you have a 200 foot game.”
Baptiste has shown that he is up for any task that is given to him, and next year in Rochester he will be relied upon to help lead the Amerks back from a dismal season in the American Hockey League this past season. Baptiste surely is not going to be handed anything in the pros, but if his play in Erie can seamlessly transition to Rochester, he should have no issues earning his ice-time, and possibly being a player of interest when the big club needs a recall.
Give Baptiste a full year in Rochester to allow him to grow into the professional game. After the 2015-16 season, we may get to see a glimpse at the next great goal scorer to develop in the Buffalo Sabres organization.