A month after many of his fellow first-rounders played their first NHL games, Bailey, the New York Islanders' first pick in the 2008 Entry Draft, finally got on the ice for their Veterans Day game against the Philadelphia Flyers last Tuesday.
The 19-year-old center didn't look out of place — he got 12:30 of ice time, including 3:01 on the power play, won seven of his 11 faceoffs, took two penalties and made a couple nice passes that weren't finished by teammates. That was the theme of the afternoon for the Isles, who dominated play for most of the game, but continued to struggle offensively and wound up losing 3-1.
The verdict: not bad for a first game, but definitely a work in progress.
"Josh looked like he belonged out there," coach Scott Gordon said. "He started to look more comfortable as the game progressed."
Bailey, who missed a month recovering from a lower-body injury, agreed that it took a while to get over the nerves that go with an NHL debut.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't," he told the postgame media scrum when asked if he was nervous before his NHL debut. "As the game went on, I got more comfortable out there. Once you get the first couple of shifts out of the way, you just go out there and play hockey."
Gordon broke him in gradually. He got just over two minutes of ice time in the first period, but a little more than five in each of the last two — despite taking a high-sticking penalty with 2:40 left in regulation and the Isles trailing by a goal.
Bailey got even more time (13:10) in his second game, a 3-1 victory at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Thursday night — the same place he was drafted by the Islanders five months earlier. With his father, brother and some cousins on hand, Bailey earned his first NHL point — a primary assist on Kyle Okposo's first-period power-play goal.
"It was pretty cool being back near my home town and getting a win," said Bailey, who was born about three hours away in Bowmanville, Ontario. "I have some good memories playing here when I was younger and being at the Draft. It worked out nicely to get a point."
Gordon has been very pleased with what he's seen in the first week of Bailey's NHL career.
"In a short amount of time Josh has done a great job, especially being out a month," he said after the game in Ottawa. "The biggest thing Josh has going for him is his puck poise and ability to protect the puck."
As with most youngsters, Bailey said the difference at the NHL level is the speed at which the game is played.
"It was fast, obviously," he said. "I think in the first period, I needed to make a couple of adjustments on a couple of plays I was a little slow on. As the game went on, I started figuring it out, having to think quicker and move my feet a little more."
Bailey's arrival in the NHL had been much-anticipated on Long Island. Isles GM Garth Snow traded down from fifth to seventh to ninth in the opening round on draft night before taking Bailey — eschewing a chance to pick defenseman Luke Schenn, now with Toronto, and Russian forward Nikita Filatov, who's on the Columbus Blue Jackets' injured list after scoring his first NHL goal. Afterward, he insisted Bailey was the player the Isles had had their eyes on all along.
To the surprise of many, Bailey made the Isles' roster in training camp, only to be sidelined by a lower-body injury before the regular season began. In the meantime, Snow has taken heat from fans and some media for opting to trade down while Schenn has gotten lots of attention for playing his way into a regular slot on Toronto's blue line.
But Gordon, for one, has been by what he's seen.
That may be true, but the question for the Islanders is whether Bailey would be better off spending the season on Long Island or back with his junior team. They can take a look-see for nine games before they have to decide whether to keep him for the full season or return him to Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League, where he was named captain before the season.
Bailey said he's not worried about the possibility of trading life in the NHL for a return to juniors.
"It's going to be decided by my play," he said when asked if he thought he'd be sent back to Windsor. "The good thing is they have my best interests at heart, and they're going to do what they think is best. So if I prove that I deserve to stay and play, I'll probably get that opportunity. That decision could be made in a couple of days — it could be made tonight or tomorrow.
"They told me I have to come in and compete hard each day, whether it's practice or a game, and prove that I deserve to be here. It's really a win-win situation, regardless of what happens. It's not going to be a bad thing. Obviously I want to play in the NHL, but if I have to put if off for a while, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that."