Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Throughout the Islanders’ difficult 2013-14 season, one recurring theme has been the play of forward Josh Bailey. Questions continue to swirl around his ability to live up to the considerable hype under which he entered the league. The news isn’t all bad, but this season has offered little in the way of encouragement for those who feel his best playing days are ahead of him.
The book on Bailey is that he’s highly intelligent, has great hands and possesses the ability to make highlight reel plays. Here’s a kid with mammoth potential. Drafted in 2008, a bumper crop whose top five included the likes of Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo, Bailey was selected ninth ahead of such talented players as Erik Karlsson (Ottawa, 15th), Jordan Eberle (Edmonton, 22nd) and John Carlson (Washington, 27th). Bailey is winding down his sixth full NHL season and is just 24 years old. Aside from an 11 game stint in Bridgeport in 2010-11 (during which he recorded six goals and 17 points) and six games in Germany during last season’s lockout, Bailey has spent his entire post-Junior career with the big club.
Never a huge point producer in the OHL (first with Owen Sound and then Windsor), Bailey broke out with 29 goals and 96 points in 67 games during his draft year. He tallied seven goals and 25 points his rookie season, then jumped to 16 goals and 19 assists for 35 points in his sophomore campaign. Those totals stand as his career highs. His 19 points in 38 games last season represents his best points-per-game total to date.
He sometimes goes long stretches doing little aside form cruising around the ice, and simply dumping the puck into the attacking zone and turning away from the play. Last year he started to show some of the untapped potential he possesses, scoring 11 goals in 38 games playing on a very effective line with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo. The line, technically the Isles second scoring combination, was arguably the strongest and most consistent on the team.
Throughout his career he has consistently played in the 15-17 minutes per game range. This season he’s averaged roughly 15 minutes per game. He’s putting up comparable number to teammates and occasional line mates Michael Grabner and rookie Brock Nelson, who are skating roughly 14 and 13 minutes per game this season, respectively. From a purely numeric standpoint, logic would dictate this stands to reason. But when you throw in the intangibles, it becomes less clear cut. Grabner and Nelson score at a similar pace with comparable ice time. Grabner is an up-and-down winger with blazing speed. Nelson is a two-way grinder with above-average hands. But neither can boast the pure talent and skill set which Bailey possesses. In fact, in terms of pure skill there are few on the team at his level.
Thus, the question remains: when will Josh Bailey break out and finally start to fulfill his huge potential? The ability is clearly there for a breakthrough; during a game in October Bailey scored on a play that would rank among the most breathtaking of the year. He tantalizes with snippets of brilliance then fades into the background for increasingly long stretches. Some players take longer to develop, and it is worth noting that Okposo didn’t reach that next level until his sixth season. To be fair, Okposo had shown steady if unspectacular improvement until last season’s four goal effort, while Bailey has yet to put together a full campaign of growth.
So much of a player’s success at the NHL level is dependent on the mental outlook. It could be just a matter of Bailey regaining his confidence, a return to top six duty, chemistry with the right line mates, a few lucky bounces, or some combination of the four that gets Bailey moving in the right direction. There is very little doubt as to whether he can. The only question that remains is whether or not he will.