By Jeff Capellini
It has taken a lot longer than many expected, but Josh Bailey has finally arrived.
That statement likely won’t mean a whole heck of a lot to a faction of Islanders fans that still to this day has not warmed up to him, but you’d be a fool to argue or downplay his importance to this team this season.
Bailey’s case is peculiar. No Islanders forward over the last decade has received more criticism. Ever since general manager Garth Snow traded down twice in the first round of the 2008 Entry Draft to select him No. 9 overall, Bailey has been the subject of countless “wasted pick” claims by fans. That’s not to say he has panned out in the manner one would expect from a top-10 pick, but to call him an outright bust, considering the major adjustment process he went through after being fast-tracked to the NHL, is about as unfair an assessment as there is.
Look no further than the career year he has put together so far. With 11 goals and 27 assists in 51 games, Bailey is currently on pace for 61 points, which would shatter his previous career high of 41, set in 2014-15.
By no means has Bailey turned out to be the crown jewel of the first round of his draft. That honor rests with Steven Stamkos, who went No. 1 overall to Tampa Bay, and justifiably so.
But if you look beyond the Lightning’s great goal scorer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many forwards who have ended up being better than Bailey. Only Stamkos, with 321, and Jordan Eberle (156) have scored more goals than Bailey’s 103. Only Stamkos, with 261, and Eberle (207) have more assists than Bailey’s 182.
Now, you could make the argument that the Isles would have been better off taking a defenseman at No. 9 given the players who have since emerged, but that rationale feels a lot like revisionist history considering guys such as Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo have since become stars. The Isles were not getting either Doughty (No. 2 overall) or Pietrangelo (No. 4), and very few penciled Karlsson in at No. 15 as the player he would eventually become.
Zach Bogosian? Luke Schenn? Tyler Myers? All decent players, but hardly household names.
No, the Islanders did fine selecting Bailey when they did. Look at what some of the forwards who went before him and not long after him in that round have since done in the NHL:
• Nikita Filatov, No. 6 overall to Columbus. He was out of the league by 2012, with just six goals in 53 games.
• Colin Wilson, No. 7 overall to Nashville. He has 90 goals and 222 points in 475 games, all with the Predators. He has scored double-digit goals in a season four times, with a high-water mark of 20 in 2014-15.
• Mikkel Boedker, No. 8 overall to Arizona. He has 90 goals and 243 points in 515 games, and has bounced around three different teams since 2014. He’s always a hot name come the trade deadline, but is mostly a one-dimensional player.
• Cody Hodgson, No. 10 overall to Vancouver. He has 64 goals and 142 points in 328 games, and is currently not playing in the NHL.
• Kyle Beach, No. 11 overall to Chicago. He has never played a minute in the NHL, and is currently in the Austrian Hockey League.
And the list goes on and on.
Regardless of his past inconsistencies or lack of top-flight production, Bailey has been arguably the Islanders’ most consistent offensive player this season, and that’s with superstar John Tavares lurking about. A native of Bowmanville, Ontario, Bailey has ratcheted his game up to a level that has been hard to ignore or dispel. There are those who just can’t fathom the Isles being all they can be with him on the top line, yet he is producing. And it shouldn’t matter that the points and solid two-way play are coming now as opposed to five years ago. The fact remains the Isles would not be in a playoff race right now without Bailey playing as well as he has.
The Islanders have been a weekly roller coaster as far as wins and losses go, but Bailey has been the model of consistency. While he has not proven to be the sniper many fans crave, he has shown off the requisite skillset and playmaking ability to completely justify the coaching staff’s decision to play him the lion’s share of minutes on a nightly basis.
There are those who argue that Bailey is a product of Tavares, but I’m wondering what player wouldn’t be expected to excel on a line with arguably one of the five best players in the league? It might be just a small sample size, but over the last three games the Islanders have scored 14 goals, which is a lot considering their secondary scoring tends to ebb and flow. Yet, in that span Tavares has just a goal and an assist, while Bailey had three goals and three assists.
Bailey was the best player on the ice during Monday night’s 6-5 overtime win over visiting Toronto, generating a goal and two assists. The effort earned rave reviews from Islanders interim head coach Doug Weight and, if only for one game, the begrudging admiration of a lot of his detractors.
While I have said repeatedly that Snow needs to make an impact trade to get the Islanders more goal-scoring, the situation on the top line has stabilized, thanks to Bailey and Anders Lee looking the part next to Tavares. There’s no guarantee their production will continue, however, and the Isles are still on the outside looking in at a playoff spot with 31 games to play. At the very least they will need to have more scoring options if they plan to roll four lines down the stretch, and deal with the physicality that comes with the ice surface getting smaller as the intensity ramps up.
But all that said, it looks like the Islanders can get by between now and the March 1 trade deadline with what they have. Offensively they have looked more like the advanced stats darlings of previous seasons, with their defense, at least of late, being the more worrisome issue.
But that’s a story perhaps for another time.
For now, the Islanders are a team attempting to mold an identity. They are trying to prove they are more than simply Tavares and some spare parts. And in that pursuit, expect the unsung Bailey to keep riding shotgun.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN