"He hasn't played at a junior pace. So, that's very encouraging. Whether he'll be able to maintain that through these nine games will probably dictate whether he stays here or goes back to junior. I think the bonus for us if he's able to stay here is that it accelerates his progress for next year. If he goes back to junior, granted he'll play a lot. But he'll play at a pace that he should be above."
It's only been three games, and prudence dictates waiting until game #9, but the Islanders are sending strong signals that 2008 first-round pick Josh Bailey could be staying in the NHL.
Truthfully, the Islanders have never wavered on that prospect since Bailey first impressed early in camp. His only two preseason games were uneventful -- save for the [body] (groin?) injury that kept him out of the lineup until just last week -- but the club has consistently praised his poise and puckhandling, always indicating the first year of his entry-level contract is Bailey's to earn.
I always thought such talk was wishful thinking and perhaps a little hope-stirring PR in a rebuilding season, but my impression is quickly changing.
Newsday beat writer Greg Logan has been keeping tabs on the situation, and coach Scott Gordon has been forthcoming about where Bailey -- who Gordon calls the second-most skilled player on the team (behind Doug Weight) -- stands:
"If he clearly establishes himself as the second-best guy, that's what we'll have to base our decision on."
In the three games so far, Bailey has just one shot, one assist, and three minor penalties in 13:20 average ice time (about 4:00 of that on the second power play unit). But his play has been promising: He's gotten a taste of some tough-task minutes late in Philadelphia and in a strong shift against Spezza and Heatley in Ottawa. His puckhandling skill is noticeable -- he made a veteran's pass to Kyle Okposo in the slot for a goal Thursday, on a play where Alex Auld was so sure he'd shoot that Auld was caught way out of the crease. Also noticeable is Bailey's relentless backchecking, and the ability to knock guys who outweigh him off the puck.
Again, it's early. Bailey has much to prove. Prudence would dictate shipping him back for more growth, and sparing him a potentially rough year on Long Island. But the Isles have looked good with him in the lineup. If they keep him, it won't look cynical like I once thought. No matter who you are, or what trajectory your season is taking, it's hard to tell a skilled second-line center to just go home.