Islanders: The Argument for Moving Josh Bailey to the First Line
By Ryan Grosso
Tuesday night was an off-night for the New York Islanders. While waiting around for the Rangers and Devils games to return from intermission, I decided to pop open my laptop and read our own Michel Anderson’s (then) latest for EOI, titled “Islanders forward lines: 3 suggestions as fans wait for a trade“.
It was a good article and you should read it. Mitch gets into the weeds on why he chose each lineup option presented, and he did a good job laying out three unique options which were each equally plausible.
The option that caught my eye most was the first one, featuring an Islanders top line of Oliver Wahlstrom, Mathew Barzal, and… Josh Bailey? Now, look, I understand Bailey has had his struggles, and in the days following back-to-back losses it’s easy to heap the lion’s share of blame on under-performing veterans like Bailey and Brock Nelson.
But, if you’ll give me a chance to explain by reading this post all the way through, I will attempt to layout why at least giving this Bailey – Barzal – Wahlstrom trio a chance wouldn’t be the end of the world. Okay, let’s do it.
Islanders Top Line: Bailey – Barzal – Wahlstrom (Passer – Dual-Threat – Shooter)
Josh Bailey is having a pretty rough season by most advanced metrics. According to Patrick Bacon’s WAR model, Bailey’s 2020-21 WAR of 0.220 has him sitting in the company of players like Edmonton’s Gaetan Haas and New Jersey’s Travis Zajac.
WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is a metric that factors in all components of a player’s game, from finishing, driving offense at even strength and the PP, driving defense at even strength and the PK, and more, to measure a player up against a replacement-level player. Think a 13th forward, 7th defenseman, or third-string goalie.
Here’s a link to a much more expansive, in-depth explanation of WAR and its uses above.
WAR is the best quantitative tool available to the public for assessing a player’s performance and whether it is good or not, and it’s telling us Bailey has not been good this season. In fact, Bailey ranks 11th out of 14 Islanders forwards (with 88 minutes or more TOI) in WAR this season. Only Cal Clutterbuck, Michael Dal Colle, and Leo Komarov have lower WAR ratings in the group this season.
Bailey’s WAR has been trending down since about the 2014-15 season, when he was in the 96th percentile of all NHL WAR ratings, according to Bacon’s model. That downward trend is normal, as most NHL’ers reach the peak of their WAR abilities around their age 24 season, or the age Bailey was in 14-15.
So why then should Bailey’s poor performance in 2020-21 be rewarded with an ice time boost and a slot next to two of this Islanders teams’ best forwards? To put it in few words, because he’s a very good passer. One of the team’s best for years now, but certainly in the two previous seasons with Barry Trotz behind the bench.
After reading Mitch’s piece from Tuesday, I posted a brief thread about Bailey’s passing to Twitter on Wednesday.
Passing is an oft-overlooked part of public data models. Private data, like the kind NHL teams use, does a better job of accounting for good passes and passers, but private data is extremely expensive and generally not available to the public.
Enter Corey Sznajder, whose charts I used in my tweets. Corey manually tracks things like passes, zone entries, dump-in recoveries, and other extremely useful bits of information, and according to Corey’s data, Bailey’s passing in 2018-19 and 19-20 was still far above NHL average.
To add some context to what I mean by above NHL average, in the 18-19 and 19-20 seasons Bailey registered more High Danger passes/60, and Point Shot Set-Ups/60 than elite NHL’ers like Leon Draisaitl and Nathan MacKinnon. Mathew Barzal was still the best passer on the Islanders in those seasons, but Bailey had a claim to number two or three, for sure.
So why play him on the first line? Because he’s still a dangerous passer in 2020-21. Corey’s data shows that Bailey has registered High Danger Shot Assists at a better rate than players like Nicklas Backstrom, Jack Eichel, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins this season.
Give Bailey a chance to dish passes in the dangerous areas to Oliver Wahlstrom, one of the best pure shooters on this Islanders team, and the potential upside is very high.
I’m not saying that this will absolutely, 100% fix the top line. In theory, Bailey’s strong passing, Barzal’s elite offensive play-driving, passing, and ability to create open looks, and Oliver Wahlstrom’s solid play-driving and fantastic shot should combine for a pretty deadly trio.
Of course, that’s in theory, so who knows how it looks if these three actually were to hit the ice together. But is it not worth a try? I think you’d be foolish to say it isn’t when the Islanders have been rolling Leo Komarov on the top line recently.
The data (and the eye test) is telling us that Josh Bailey’s overall game is in decline. At 31-years-old, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But it’s also telling us he still has a knack for passing the puck into the dangerous areas and creating shots at good rates off of those passes.
The way I see it, giving Mitch’s Bailey – Barzal – Wahlstrom idea a try has a lot of upside. If it works, the Islanders have a dangerous top line again. If it doesn’t, then okay, the trade deadline is a little under two weeks away and there’s still time to add to the roster, plus a host of in-house options for trying to fix line one.
But at least give it a try. It can’t be worse than what we’ve seen from Komarov – Barzal – Eberle recently, and it actually has the potential to be a very strong line featuring two of the Islanders best young forwards.