Justin Bailey hasn’t scored in the AHL since opening night. ©2018, Hickling Images, Olean Times Herald

Sabres prospect Justin Bailey struggling to score after ankle injury

BUFFALO – Chris Taylor knows winger Justin Bailey better than anyone in the Sabres organization.

Before the Americans coach left Rochester for a year, he was an assistant with the AHL club, helping the Williamsville native earn his first NHL recall as a rookie two seasons ago.

Taylor mentored Bailey, 22, watching him develop from a raw prospect into a youngster the Sabres have played 47 times over the last three seasons.

So when Taylor said he’s “not worried” about Bailey, who’s struggling to recover from an early-season ankle injury, it might be more than some standard coach-speak.

But right now, Bailey is enduring a career-worst slump. He last scored for the Amerks on opening night, a two-goal performance before beginning a 21-game goal drought.

“He’s getting his feet underneath him, it’s a tough ankle injury,” Taylor said prior to Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to the Syracuse Crunch inside KeyBank Center. “He just doesn’t have his confidence right now.”

There have been some bright spots this season. After the Sabres recalled Bailey, he sparked their first win Oct. 15, scoring minutes into his season debut.

“I thought I was playing some of my best hockey in the beginning of the season and to get hurt and miss time like that, and to come back and not have the success I’ve had in the beginning of the year, is tough,” Bailey said.

Thanks to his ankle and a hand injury, Bailey played just twice over a 74-day stretch. Still, he has often dominated the AHL, scoring 43 goals in 122 games over his first two seasons.

“An injury of that nature, you don’t think it’s much, but it’s not fun, for sure,” Bailey said of his ankle. “I think it did take a little bit of time to get my confidence back. It’s an injury where you kind of just have to play through it at certain points. I’m really starting to feel like myself again.”

Bailey showed a glimpse of that late in the first period Wednesday, utilizing his speed outside and cutting to the net to create a scoring chance.

Taylor, of course, wants more of that aggressiveness and for Bailey to simply “go out there and play” and concentrate on the details in his game.

“Stop the thinking, stop everything, don’t worry about who’s going up or what or how your ankle (is) or injuries and stuff,” Taylor said. “Continue the process, do what you need to do, and the process for him, first and foremost, is forechecking and skating. It’s a weapon, so let’s use it.

“The second thing is he’s got to take pucks wide and he’s got to drive pucks to the net. I believe that he hasn’t been doing that. I don’t know if he’s tentative with his ankle because of the injury or not. But we got to push him through that to get better and … score goals.”

Bailey believes working on the little things will ignite his offense.

“As tough as that is for a guy like me who’s used to scoring down in the minors, it’s something I just have to trust (my) coach with and trust myself that doing the little things will make me successful and the goals and the points will come,” he said.

Bailey, who’s in the final season of his entry-level contract, said his ankle injury isn’t in the back of his head.

“I don’t think about it until I feel it,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have not felt it for the last couple of weeks, and it’s been a sigh of relief because when I came back, it definitely was there still.”

The reeling Amerks sorely need Bailey’s offensive contributions. Following a torrid start, they’ve won only two of their last 15 games, losing eight in overtime or a shootout. They’ve scored just one goal in each of their last three contests.

“We need to get him back into form, because he’s a big part of our team and a big part of this organization,” Taylor said.

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