It’s funny because, well, the 29-year-old forward isn’t exactly the prime candidate to be anyone’s favorite player. He’s not dynamic or flashy. He’s not outspoken or cocky. He’s not Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid or Erik Karlsson. He doesn’t have flair. And for a long time, many Islanders fans didn’t like Bailey all that much, let alone consider him one of their favorites.
Like his persona, Bailey’s game is quiet, often overlooked, sublimated to whichever bigger talent (John Tavares, Mathew Barzal) is playing alongside him.
But as Barzal said with awe in his voice last week, “He’s so good out there.
“He’s so subtle, always in the right spots,” last season’s Calder Trophy winner said. “Never trying to really beat guys. He plays more like a come-get-it [game], like Patty Kane a little bit. Come get the puck, come try to get it off me. Very sneaky player.”
As former Islanders coach Jack Capuano said, “He’s got great hands, and he’s got sneaky, sneaky deception. … He makes players around him better.”
But it took a while for Bailey to achieve success and recognition in the NHL.
Bailey broke the 40-point barrier once in his first eight NHL seasons; he had 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists) in 2014-15. The next season he slipped to 32 (12 goals, 20 assists).
However, Bailey flourished while playing beside Tavares for the past two seasons. He had 56 points (13 goals, 43 assists) in 2016-17 before breaking through with an NHL career-high 71 points (18 goals, 53 assists) last season. Bailey finished third on the Islanders in scoring, behind Barzal and Tavares, and he appeared in his first NHL All-Star Game.
He also led the Islanders with 31 power-play points, tying him with a pair of elite scorers — Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets — for 14th among all NHL players.
“I think there’s been a real jump in his game in the last three, four years and some of it was just a little more opportunity for him,” Tavares said. “I think he’s always had a lot of belief in his skillset and who he is as a player. He handles things really well, guys lean on him, look up to him, and he’s developed into a really good leader too.
“But I felt the last three, four years, you could just tell, a little more opportunity on the power play and he’s definitely been counted on in all situations. You can just see his confidence grow.”
His skills became obvious. His poise. His vision. His knack around the net.
It all worked.
Then Tavares left the Islanders, signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent on July 1.
What would that mean for Bailey? Would it adversely affect him and his numbers? Or would it allow Bailey to emerge from the long shadow that Tavares has cast and be the focal point of New York’s offense?
As for the last option, Bailey said, “Maybe other people look at it that way. I honestly never thought that way.”
He didn’t feel the need to emerge from anyone’s shadow. He knows who he is and what he’s always been, a player able to translate the sometimes-unpredictable games of linemates like Barzal, to be in the places they need him to be at the time they need him to be there.
Bailey scored his 400th career point (131 goals, 269 assists) with one assist in a 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday and leads the Islanders this season with 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 28 games. He’s spent much of the season as Barzal’s right wing.
“He’s a player that can complement a high-end guy, but he has enough substance in his game and enough of a hockey IQ and a skill set that he can prop his own game up,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He has the ability to read off a guy who’s not really that easy to read off — because, trust me, I have no idea sometimes what [Barzal] is doing, and the guys around him don’t.”
But Bailey does.
“I’m just starting to learn how he’s smarter than any player I’ve probably played with,” Barzal said. “He’s always in the right position. So, I’m like, ‘OK, he’s there, I’ve got to give it to him. He’s in the right spot.'”
Bailey makes life easier for a young player still learning the ropes in the NHL, still fiery about missed chances and missed opportunities. For Barzal, having Bailey is like having an instructional video on the ice with him.
“Just with his demeanor and the way he plays on the ice, it’s not flashy,” Barzal said. “He’s not flying around you and beating you wide. It’s more just come get it and he’s just going to play hockey. He almost plays like a, I don’t even want to say it, like a beer league style, but in the NHL. You play with older players and they’re always in the right spots. But he also has that high-end superstar skill, so it makes it a really, really good combo.”
Bailey has also, finally, wormed his way into the hearts of Islanders fans, who weren’t always welcoming to the No. 9 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. Bailey laughed softly when asked about his relationship with the fans, whether it’s grown, whether it’s changed.
He demurred, offering that outsiders might know more about that than he does.
But Capuano, now an associate coach with the Florida Panthers, recalled having meetings about those difficult times, “when we would sit as coaches and talk to him.”
“But right there, it tells you show strong he is, mentally,” Capuano said. “When you want to listen to the outside noise and you want to listen to those things that can affect you, that never affected Josh. He stayed on course. He played the game that we wanted him to play.”
And he has emerged better for it.
“I’ve heard in years past boos at games and stuff like that, but I’m thankful for those times,” Bailey said. “I really have no ill will toward anyone like that. I think it makes you stronger. It makes you grow a thick skin, and lets you brush things off a little easier.”
Even when his team’s fans doubted him. Even when they wondered exactly how well he would play without Tavares there beside him. Even when he arrived at training camp looking to not just duplicate an All-Star season, but to exceed it.
“I think you can never be satisfied with where you’re at,” Bailey said. “I’m certainly not.”
And his teammates appreciate that about him, about his game.
Barzal pauses after a long answer about their growing chemistry, about watching Bailey on video and seeing the areas he occupies on the ice, how they’re always so perfect, and he just can’t help himself.
“Yeah, he’s good,” Barzal said. “Man, he’s good.”