By Daniel Friedman
Islanders forward Josh Bailey is entering his sixth NHL season. The 23-year-old from Bowmanville, Ontario is working his tail off to ensure it’ll be better than the previous five.
Stemming from his performances last season and over the last couple of weeks of the preseason, there is a mountain of evidence to support the notion that he’ll finally bust loose in 2013-14.
I’m sure the Islanders didn’t expect it to take a half-dozen years, but all things considered, Bailey’s delayed arrival makes perfect sense. He was rushed into the NHL, despite being completely unprepared.
As if that wasn’t enough, Bailey was then moved back and forth between center and the wing, which just had to be downright confusing for him. It took the Isles a bit too long to settle on right wing permanently, but now that they have, Bailey has gotten more acclimated to it and it’s showing on the ice.
It was hard to tell because of the lockout-shortened season, but Bailey actually took a legitimate step forward in terms of offensive production. During his first four seasons, he amassed 25, 35, 28 and 32 points, respectively. In 2013, Bailey finished with 19 points (11 goals, seven assists) in 38 games, putting him on pace for career-highs in goals (23) and points (41) over an 82-game schedule.
After collecting just seven points in his first 19 games, Bailey nearly doubled his output with 13 over his final 19 contests. He then recorded three assists in six games against Pittsburgh in the first-round playoff loss.
Even more encouraging was Bailey’s plus-7 rating during the regular season; the third-best on the team, behind only Thomas Hickey (plus-9) and Lubomir Visnovsky (plus-12).
Suffice to say, the numbers suggest Bailey is on the cusp of bigger and better things. The experience he’s amassed and the added muscle he’s added will only help him going forward.
There’s also a lot to like about his skill-set. Bailey has a cannon of a shot, slick mitts, and good vision, but what’s more important is he’s learning how to better utilize each.
Bailey has been able to reinvent himself as a different type of hockey player. Everything began to come into focus the moment he realized he was not going to be the pure offensive forward many thought he would be when the Islanders selected him No. 9 overall back in 2008.
From the outset, one could clearly see that the talent was there, but the consistency was not. Over his first four seasons, Bailey made too many extra passes, didn’t take enough shots and lost possession of the puck far too often.
Fast forward five years and he’s shooting more and being more selective in terms of passing. Additionally, he’s playing better in all three zones and has become a real heady player both with and without the puck.
Bailey is still searching for his true niche on this team, but he’s developed into a very steady two-way forward and, by doing so, has become a valuable asset. The Islanders recognized that and gave him a five-year contract extension over the summer.
Coach Jack Capuano is trying bailey out on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson this week and had him alongside Tavares during the playoffs as well. Whether or not Bailey stays there remains to be seen, but the fact that he’s even being considered for that spot is a testament to just how far he’s come.
He’s seen ice time on the power play and penalty kill and has filled both roles well. Bailey scored two shorthanded goals against the Devils in a preseason game last week and looked very, very sharp throughout the entire contest.
It is absolutely reasonable to expect more out of Bailey. I think that, at the very least, he’ll put up 40 points this season. If he finishes with around 20 goals and 20 assists, that would be a solid step forward for him.
Bailey was the first player general manager Garth Snow drafted after announcing the rebuild and it took until last season for all the pieces to start coming together. It was only appropriate that Bailey played such a huge role in the Isles’ run to the playoffs.
The Islanders are on the rise, which is why Bailey’s emergence needs to continue. He has the potential to be a top-line player with a jack-of-all trades mentality.
Like Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, Bailey is morphing into the kind of versatile player teams need in order to be successful. He’s slowly carving out his own identity and it’s beginning to do wonders for both him and the Islanders.
For Bailey, the best really is yet to come.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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