By: Ryan J. Harr (stats as of Dec. 30)
Looking back on last season in what was his first in professional hockey, it was a bit of a learning-on-the-fly experience for Rochester Americans forward Nick Baptiste. Despite a season of learning and becoming more acclimated to life in the American Hockey League, he still managed to collect 28 points (13+15) in 62 games.
Baptiste finished third among his rookie class behind Justin Bailey 45 points (20+25) and Evan Rodrigues (9+21), but still absorbed things quite a bit during his first season in the AHL.
“I learned a lot in my first professional season,” said Baptiste. “The American Hockey League game was different than I was used to in OHL but I was able to adapt as a player over the course of the season.”
Following last season’s success, Baptiste wanted to take the next step in his young professional career in order to build on everything he was able to accomplish as a rookie.
“Over the summer, I worked on getting stronger and faster in the offseason,” explained Baptiste. “Not only did I work on those things, I also wanted to work on my mental game, so when things did not go as I planned I would not get down on myself. I think thus far this season I have been able to improve on that compared to last year.”
Nearly 25 games into this season, Baptiste has notched a team-high 14 goals that ranks within the top five in the AHL heading into the new calendar year. He’s been scoring goals at just under a goal-per-game pace with 13 over his last 19 appearances, including three back on Dec. 14 against Toronto for the first hat trick of his career. Baptiste is also on pace to become the fastest Amerk to reach 20 goals since Ken Priestlay reached the mark in 28 games during the 1988-89 season.
“Nick has the ability to use his speed well and moves his legs that not only creates scoring chances for himself but also his linemates,” said Amerks head coach Dan Lambert. “He is the type of player that does not need many scoring chances to get one or two goals but he is a shooter and a goal-scorer. One thing coming into this season that I did not realize about Baptiste is how much of a natural goal-scorer he is and his great acceleration on the ice.”
With his work on the ice surface this season, Baptiste has already earned three separate recalls to the Buffalo Sabres, the first of which came following a two-point effort in Rochester’s 5-4 season-opening win over the Hershey Bears on Oct. 14. Four days later he made his NHL debut in Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome on Oct. 18 against the Calgary Flames.
“It was an unbelievable experience. I was able to put on the Sabres uniform for real game and it was a dream come true. I was able to share the experience with my family and it is something I will never forget.”
While the first recall was an unforgettable memory, Baptiste made it even more special by scoring his first NHL goal in a 2-1 loss against the Vancouver Canucks Oct. 20. What made it even more memorable was the way in which it was scored.
“It was a pretty crazy goal because it hit off several players, so I was not sure if I actually did score or not. Then I realized I did score, then it got waved off, but required a video review. After review, the officials deemed it was a good goal. It was a roller coaster ride of emotions but it was pretty special and I was glad to get the first goal out of the way.”
Having already accomplished so much in the first half off the season, Baptiste is happy with what he’s done so far, but knows he’s capable of much more. That will serve as motivation heading into the New Year.
“My goal heading into the second half of the season is to continue to evolve my overall game and get back up with the Sabres,” said Baptiste. “I know it will not be an easy task, but I must continue to work hard every day and take it day by day all while controlling the things I can control.”
If his first 23 games are any indication as to how the rest of the season will play out, it’s safe to say the Amerks are in good hands as long as Baptiste continues to grow.