Move to contender has Otters’ Baptiste raising his expectations

By Jason Menard
Nicholas Baptiste - Erie Otters

Photo: Erie Otters forward and Buffalo Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste was one of the final cuts from Team Canada’s roster for the 2015 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)


It may just be over 685 kilometers from Sudbury to Erie as the crow flies, but for Nick Baptiste, the difference between playing for the cellar-dwelling Wolves to riding shotgun for Connor McDavid and the Otters might be enough to give someone vertigo.


Baptiste, the Sudbury Wolves’ former captain, was traded to the Erie Otters in late November in exchange for Cole Mayo, Travis Wood, two second round picks, and two thirds. He would be subsequently joined by Belleville Bulls’ captain Jake Marchment and forward Remi Elie as the Otters loaded up for a Memorial Cup run.


For Baptiste, it’s been a new experience.


“It’s such a winning culture. I went from one of the last-place teams in the league to one of the best, so it’s nice to come to a team where expectations are high and everyone’s pulling to win,” he said. “Obviously we do have the guys that we think can get far in the playoffs. Obviously the Memorial Cup is a goal of ours. For me, coming here I want to bring offense and play a complete 200-foot game, and help this team win.”


Otters’ general manager Sherry Bassin said that Baptiste was a perfect fit for the team — and he matched perfectly with a certain elite player.


“I just love the way he plays. I really went after him because of his character. I watched him on a team that was trying to compete and he never quit. He can shoot the puck and he can skate,” Bassin said. “He was good. We didn’t even look at that. We just knew he was a player. We saw his compete level and we thought that we were looking for a guy that could skate pretty good to play right wing with some guy by the name of McDavid.


“We wanted a right-hand shot specifically for the power play. We went to watch him play a lot, because I live in Oshawa, so Sudbury gets in a lot. He played as if they were playing for a championship. That really appealed to us.”


The team did its due diligence on Baptiste and came away impressed.


“I think that too — his maturity, his level — I mean, he was an invite to the World Junior team. They only invited, what, 29 guys? So obviously we knew that he had some ability and we liked the way that he played in traffic,” Bassin said. “Once we considered all that and the fact that he’s been to NHL camps — obviously we talked to Buffalo — we knew him as a minor-midget, so we checked all of our reports on him and they all rated very highly, especially about his character. We thought that was important. He was just a fit.”


Coming from Sudbury, which has been challenged for the past few years, to Erie hasn’t just been a culture change. Expectations have changed, Baptiste explained.


“Expectations are high. People look to you guys to be teams that win and win a lot of games,” he said. “For us it’s just staying the course, taking it day by day, and doing the little things we need to do to ensure that we’re successful in the future.”


And for Baptiste, who scored 45 goals last season with the Wolves, he knows that means providing offense and being responsible defensively.


“My role is more offense and being able to open up some space and lanes for those good players that we have on our team,” he said. “It’s about playing below the goal line and putting the pucks in the net. One of the biggest things I can do is score goals, so it’s a role where I can also play in our own end.”


So far, Baptiste has delivered. In 12 games prior to the trade, Baptiste scored six goals, added five assists, and was a -7. In the 16 games since the trade — the majority of which have been played without McDavid in the lineup, who was out for two months with a broken hand followed by a gold medal run at the 2015 World Junior Championship — he’s performed at better than a point-per-game rate, with 19 points, including nine goals, in 16 games.


“We want his scoring. We want some leadership out of him,” Bassin added. “We hope to see him as part of the leadership group. We don’t just look at one or two guys — when you put that all together it makes us more competitive.”


Bassin and Otters’ head coach Kris Knoblauch made a point of reaching out to Baptiste, which meant a lot to him, he explained.


“They both reached out to me the day I got traded and welcomed me with open arms,” Baptiste added. “Everyone’s been really welcoming ever since I got here. It’s been great — it’s truly about family here and I’m happy to be here.”


With a no-trade clause, Baptiste had final say on whether or not he’d leave Sudbury. With the interest shown by Bassin and Knoblauch, combined with the opportunity that Erie offered, it was a no-brainer.


“[The trade talk] was a little bit ongoing. We would talk about it as the opportunity arose,” Baptiste said. “Actually, the morning of the day I got traded was when I really heard about it. Obviously I waived my no-trade clause and I’m really happy to be here.”


His NHL rights holder was pretty happy with the end result, too. The Buffalo Sabres drafted Baptiste in the third round, 69th overall, of the 2013 NHL Draft. Baptiste said the fact that Erie made the effort to get him was seen as a positive.


“[The Sabres] just told me to keep playing my game — that’s why Erie reached out to get me, that’s why I play,” he said “They’re happy I’m in a situation where I am, where I have an opportunity to win, and they just want to see me succeed.”


And with some pro camp experience under his belt, Baptiste said he’s hoping to bring some of that experience to help the Otters’ march to the Memorial Cup.


“Whenever you can play with pro guys and see what they’re like and how they handle themselves on and off the ice, it’s always a great learning tool,” he said. “For me, trying to bring things back, obviously I hurt my shoulder at the start of the season and I wasn’t able to play this camp, but being there I got to see the way they carry themselves, the leadership, and how hard it is to make it there, and what it takes to be successful.”


Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard