By Jeff Capellini
When Josh Bailey finally emerged as a bona fide top-six forward last season, many Islanders fans waited, somewhat impatiently, for the other shoe to drop.
They figured his 56-point effort in 2016-17 was an aberration.
So what are they thinking now that Bailey has half that many points in just 23 games this season?
Well, let’s just say a lot of people are having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that Bailey has proven to not only be a late bloomer, but also that he is now one of the great playmakers in the NHL.
Let me repeat that for all those still hallucinating from the after-effects of their turkey coma: Josh Bailey is turning into a legitimate star.
How else does one explain him being on pace for 82 assists and 100 points?
Those numbers might seem utterly insane to some of you considering what you know of Bailey’s 10-year career. He has never scored more than 16 goals in a season, and his 43-assist performance in 2016-17, while impressive, never really sat right with a good portion of the fan base.
Their reasoning is pretty simple, albeit ridiculous.
Secondary assists don’t count.
Talk about the fickle nature of fandom.
The rules of this secret society say if you’ve been a below-average point producer for basically your entire career, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt when you do finally break through.
Bailey, in their eyes, has to do something truly special to get out of the doghouse.
Like, perhaps, put up 100 points, something superstar center John Tavares, the end-all, be-all of Isles Nation, has never come close to accomplishing, by the way.
Of course, to ask Bailey, who is currently tied for second in the NHL with 23 assists and tied for ninth in points, to keep up this incredible pace isn’t fair or realistic. Odds are good he’ll eventually tail off. But that doesn’t mean he will revert to the player he was prior to last season. As long as he plays with Tavares and Anders Lee, Bailey will continue to produce at, for him, a remarkable level. And I get the feeling that he’s at the point now where he’ll put up points regardless of who his linemates are. His game has come that far.
The Islanders as a whole offensively are light years better than any club they’ve put on the ice in a very long time. They create difficult even-strength matchups due to their overall team speed and high level of skill across all four lines. And now that their power play resembles that of a team serious about doing a lot more than simply making the playoffs, there’s no telling where they can go.
Assuming the defense tightens up and goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss become at minimum what they’ve been throughout their respective careers, the Islanders could prove to be a really big obstacle for any team to overcome this spring. That may be putting the cart way ahead of the horse, but it’s time for the Isles to go big or go home. They have the potential to be that good.
But back to Bailey and this notion that amassing a ton of secondary assists makes a man less of a man. People forget, despite being in the NHL for a decade now, he is only 28. I think most fans and media folks who follow the Isles on a consistent basis would agree that Bailey was rushed to the NHL after being drafted ninth overall in 2008. There was no time for nurturing, and as a result he struggled for a long time to find himself.
But where does it say there is a finite amount of time that’s acceptable for someone to develop into a useful everyday NHL player? It’s all a matter of how much patience a front office has and how much work the player wants to put in. And it should come as no surprise to fans of this franchise that the Islanders go out of their way to make sure every last player they invest in, be it through years of scouting or financially, gets the benefit of the doubt.
Hence, a guy like Bailey, whose work ethic has been admirable since the day he arrived as an 18-year-old thrust into a poor situation surrounded by players, many of them veterans, who weren’t nearly as good as he was, despite everything he needed to learn.
All these years later you’re seeing the results of that deliberate maturation process. Bailey may be the smartest player on the ice every night. He sees things develop like a true playmaker. He passes to spots, not to teammates. His offensive awareness is everything one would hope an elite scorer would have.
Sure, he does not shoot the puck enough, and that can be maddening. Bailey is unselfish to a fault. But does that mean he doesn’t have the requisite skills necessary to one day be a 25- or 30-goal guy? I find that hard to believe. When he does score, it’s usually one for the highlight reel.
What I see is a player who does what he does based on the needs of the team at the time. The Isles’ top line is among the three of four best in the NHL. Why? It has a fine mix of star power and balance. Tavares and Lee have 26 goals between them, but they also have combined for 23 assists. Bailey sets up both with precision. Scoring plays have to start somewhere. Who really cares if you’re awarded a primary or secondary helper, as long as the red light goes on?
Bailey has also been the driving force behind New York’s power play overcoming an absolutely dreadful first 10 games to climb up to 12th overall (22 percent). His 13 power play points are currently tied for fourth in the league behind luminaries such as Phil Kessel, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, guys known throughout the land for their offensive prowess.
You can make the argument that no player has been more important to the Islanders’ 14-7-2 start. New York had to get out of the gate quickly to ease the fears of fans who felt not enough was done in the offseason to make up for last season’s step back. But as we’ve seen so far, those fears have been unfounded. Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Tavares, Lee, Nick Leddy — the Islanders are getting serious contributions from literally everywhere and as a result have pretty much served notice that they are going to be in this thing for the duration.
Oh, and another thing sure to upset some: Bailey is going to get paid. He can test unrestricted free agency after this season. I’m firmly of the belief that general manager Garth Snow would be wise to not let him get there.
That’s because, like him or not, Bailey is a primary force behind literally everything the Islanders are trying to do.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN