-- Never before has Josh Bailey
played at the NHL level with this much confidence since he entered the League with the New York Islanders
in the fall of 2008.
Sure, Bailey always knew what he was capable of doing. But the maturity and the experience gained over the past two seasons are clearly visible now in every facet of Bailey's game. Five games into the season, the former first-round pick (No. 9, 2008) already has 3 goals and 3 assists.
"I'm definitely a lot stronger," Bailey said after tallying a goal and an assist in the Isles' 5-2 win against Colorado at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night. "I think I've got more confidence and speed to fight off checks. When the puck gets down low, I feel like guys can't really push me around, which is something I really wanted to improve after last year. So far, it's been good."
Saturday's victory moved the Islanders into a first-place tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins
in the Atlantic Division. If not for Bailey's early play, it's hard to imagine that would be the case. The 21-year-old is certainly making Isles GM Garth Snow
look better with each passing game; Snow, you may recall, traded down twice from No. 5 to No. 9 at the 2008 Entry Draft before selecting the Bowmanville, Ontario native.
It was somewhat of a surprise that year when Snow and Isles coach Scott Gordon
opted to keep Bailey in New York rather than send him back to the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League, but that decision appears to be paying dividends now.
"We knew that if he stayed here, we could get a lot of the bad things out of his game and make the process quicker for him," Gordon said. "If we had sent him back to junior, he would have gotten a bunch of points, probably would've won the Memorial Cup with the team that won it. He would've gone to World Juniors (for Canada), but at the end of the day, right now, he could be the player we saw last year instead of being the player he is now.
"That's two summers of quality off-ice training. It's the understanding of after he makes a play, he's got somewhere to go. He's just so much stronger on the puck now that things are happening more for him because of the fact that he's just older. Had he played another year against kids, it's not going to help him as far as speeding up the process of being NHL-ready."
Bailey took over as the club's No. 1 center when John Tavares
suffered a mild concussion on opening night against the Dallas Stars
and quickly proved he was capable of handling the job. He's tallied a point in four of the Isles' first five games and continued to contribute even with Tavares back in the lineup for Saturday's win against the Avs.
"Guys need to step up," Bailey said. "I think lots of guys have. We've been getting contributions from all lines, and I think thus far it's been working. Hopefully guys can keep doing it."
If Bailey continues to contribute, he'll certainly earn more attention from the opposition in coming games. Not bad for a kid whose name was rarely mentioned by prognosticators when dissecting the Isles' offensive weapons. Bailey went from 7 goals as a rookie to 16 goals last season.
"I just want to establish myself," Bailey said. "I think the first couple of years, I didn't really do that. I think I had a better year last year, but I think you want to establish yourself as the type of player you're going to be for the rest of your career. I'd like to do that."
He's certainly well on his way. The two people least surprised by what Bailey is accomplishing on the ice are probably Gordon and Snow.
"He's such a great kid," Gordon said. "He listens. He wants to get better. You never get any attitude from him at all. I've said this before, (but) Garth doesn't get enough credit for trading down and drafting him. It's like, all the other players that went in front of him, they would've been the better option, but certainly he's shown that he was the right guy."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL