Heading into the 2013-14 NHL season, it remains to be seen who will accompany Matt Moulson and John Tavares on the New York Islanders' top line. The most likely candidates are free-agent signee Pierre-Marc Bouchard and 20-year-old Ryan Strome.
That line will need to produce if the Islanders are going to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a second straight season. But the No. 1 line can't do it alone.
New York's second line of Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo was productive last season. Bailey missed the start of the season due to a knee injury sustained playing overseas during the lockout, but the first-round pick (No. 9) from 2008 finished with 11 goals and eight assists in 38 NHL games.
Owner Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow were pleased with what they saw from Bailey last season. On July 15, Bailey, who was a restricted free agent, signed a five-year contract worth $16.5 million.
"You don't really think too much about it," Bailey told NHL.com. "Garth and I had talked about it at the end of the season in our meeting. Obviously, he knew where I stood on wanting to be a part of this team for a long time, and I was certainly happy that he felt the same way. I think Charles and Garth showing that faith in me, I think certainly gives you that much more confidence moving forward. I'm certainly excited to get back and get going.
"I wanted a long-term deal, but I think the fact that Charles and Garth and the whole coaching staff wanted to do that as well … I think that was key to the whole thing. I think they're in the driver's seat to a certain extent when it comes to that, and I was really thrilled that we were able to come to terms on a five-year deal."
It's been a roller-coaster ride for Bailey since the Islanders drafted him. They surprisingly kept him in the NHL as an 18-year-old, and Bailey showed glimpses of his ability with 25 points (seven goals) in 68 games on a team that finished at the bottom of the NHL standings.
Things went south for Bailey during 2010-11, when he went 13 straight games without a point and was demoted to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League. Though there have been more slumps since, Bailey's hands and vision are too impressive to ignore. The talent is there; the Islanders need him to show it on a consistent basis.
"After playing five years in the League, you go through your ups and downs, like any player," Bailey, 23, said. "I think you'll continue to have them, but you learn more about yourself and more about what it takes to be a pro and show up every night to compete and to contribute. Playing with great players like Kyle and [Frans] certainly helps a ton too. I'm certainly excited to do that for a full 82 [games], plus playoffs this year.
"At the end of the previous season with [Frans] and Kyle and myself, we seemed to play well together and I think we had a lot of confidence together. I think coming back from missing the first 10 games, I think it took me a few to get into the swing of things. But once that happened, I thought playing with two great players like them, the three of us really meshed well. We gained even more confidence together. I really enjoyed playing with those two guys. I think all those things combined really led our line to get some big contributions down the stretch."
As with most other players, much of Bailey's game revolves around confidence. When it hasn't been there, neither has the production. Islanders coach Jack Capuano said he believes the combination started to arrive when Bailey was shifted from center to left wing during the second half of the 2011-12 season.
"I think Josh puts a lot of pressure on himself, but I think he broke into the League at a really young age," Capuano said. "I think it took him a little bit of time to gain that confidence, but it's going real well. We kept that line together all year and we just thought down the stretch, just that little tweak with Moulson and Josh seemed to work for us. But he's another guy that came into the organization as a center and he's just played much better on the wing, for whatever reason.
"I think Josh is really coming into his own now. He's got that right frame of mind, he's got that confidence that he needs and hopefully he'll have another big year for us."
Bailey's production will be crucial this season as the Islanders compete in the newly formed Metropolitan Division with the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. Only the top three teams in the division are assured of a playoff spot, so the race truly begins when New York opens the season at New Jersey on Oct. 4.
Bailey, who spent some time on Tavares' line during the first-round playoff loss to the Penguins, told NHL.com he would have no problem skating again with Nielsen and Okposo. He said he believes the continuity and familiarity could benefit all three players.
"I certainly think it helps," Bailey said. "I think the more you play with someone or two people, the more comfortable you get, the more you know where one another is going to be out there. We don't really know what the plan for lines are going into the season yet, but if the three of us end up together, it'll be a welcomed thing for sure."
Now that the Islanders finally got over the hump and made the playoffs last season, bigger things could be on the horizon for a young core that has collected its lumps together. Can they take the next step in 2013-14? Much of that will depend on Bailey's performance. He's ready to do whatever it takes to help bring this franchise back to prominence.
"Every year has gotten more and more [exciting]," Bailey said. "I think this year is even more than the past few years by leaps and bounds. Coming in, it's a lot of the same group of guys. I thought we made some great additions to the team. I think there's a lot of excitement and we'll be excited to prove ourselves throughout the course of the season."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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