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Josh Bailey’s long, strange trip to the Top 10 of the Islanders scoring list

From inconsistent to indispensable, no one has had the Full Islanders Experience more than Bailey, who has earned his place near the top of the team’s leaderboard.

NHLI via Getty Images

Man, 515 points can really sneak up on you. With Josh Bailey, it wouldn’t happen any other way.

The points that put Bailey into the top 10 of the Islanders’ all time scoring list happened in a Western Conference game on a Sunday night, with half of the viewing audience asleep and catching up the next day. The highlight below doesn’t even mention the feat. I got the facts wrong myself on Islanders Anxiety earlier this week.

But this is the goal that pushed Bailey past Bob Nystrom and into the team’s top 10. It’s as plain and workmanlike as the man himself. He would add an assist later in the 2-0 win over Vegas as well.

It’s a weird thing when a player whose entire career you’ve watched achieves the kind of station that you normally ascribe to guys you only see in highlight packages. “Top 10 in Islanders scoring” is usually something that is only relevant to people like Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and the rest. Even the name “John Tavares,” Bailey’s frequent linemate and the man who defined the era in which they were both drafted, isn’t out of place on the list.

But Bailey? JOSH Bailey? The guy who practically didn’t have a defined position for the first few seasons of his career? The guy who, at 19-years-old, played on one of the worst teams ever assembled by this franchise, forever hampering his development (or so we thought)? The guy nearly every Islanders fan has tried to trade at least once for whatever else the team needed over the last 14 years? The guy whose smartest move was never joining social media, thereby avoiding the constant criticisms of people who have consistently been disappointed by everything he’s done and hasn’t done in his career?

This Josh Bailey? This is the guy who passed “Mr. Islander” Nystrom and now has Bob Bourne and John Tonelli in his sights by season’s end?

Yes. Yes, he is.

Even as a teenager, Bailey knew what he’d become. Billed as a “playmaking center” (more on that position later), he said he looks to always past first, which made his coaches mad. Yeah, we know, dude.

Garth Snow decided to trade down a few times at the 2008 NHL Draft in order to accrue more picks for a coming rebuild. The Islanders left Ottawa with 13 new prospects including Bailey, Matt Martin, Travis Hamonic and a number of guys we’d spend the next few years arguing about and wishing would pan out. Being taken at No. 9 overall carries a heavy weight of expectations, and for a long time, it seemed Bailey wouldn’t match them. No one expected him to be Steven Stamkos, who went first overall that year, but with players like Erik Karlsson, John Carlson and Adam Henrique still out there when he was picked (not to mention whoever your personal favorite was) it always seemed like Bailey was chasing every other player in that draft.

He currently sits sixth in scoring among all players picked that year, which means the vast majority of them are or were chasing him.

He stepped right on to the Islanders in 2008 and into the fire of an absolutely terrible team that was, let’s say, strategically designed to get a very high first round pick the next year. There’s no actual hard evidence of the dreaded “TANK.” But with three franchise-founding players available the next year, there was no denying where the Islanders were headed.

Bailey missed his old junior team’s run to a Memorial Cup championship in favor of a 10-game losing streak and blowout losses to Buffalo, Boston, Pittsburgh and more that season. They spent the bulk of the season in last place with little hope for relief. But by setting up Kyle Okposo for this powerplay goal in a 3-1 win over Ottawa, Bailey started on a path few could have predicted.

The next few seasons would be difficult, for both Bailey and the Islanders. Tavares would arrive, and they would both become founding member of what we around here used to call TEH CORE, the guys who would eventually lead the Islanders back to prominence. Everyone had their growing pains and hard lessons, but Bailey seemed to struggle the most.

Despite playing center in junior, Bailey found it difficult to keep up in the NHL, which is certainly no crime for a 19-year-old. Looking for anything that could stick, coaches Scott Gordon and Jack Capuano moved him all over the lineup, and he played everywhere but goaltender year after year. Center, wing, first line, fourth line. Everywhere. After two and a half seasons in the NHL, Bailey finally ended up in the AHL, playing 21 games for Bridgeport in 2010-11 in order to “find his game.” When he returned, you wouldn’t be blamed for wondering if he ever found what he or the team were looking for or if he left it in Connecticut.

Then everything changed. After nine mostly mediocre and often frustrating seasons in the NHL, including three playoff appearances, Bailey found himself as Tavares’s winger on the team’s first line in 2016, the beneficiary of a couple of free agent losses. For the first time, he flourished, setting up Tavares and others 43 times, more points than he had had in any season. Plus he added 13 goals of his own. Like the proverbial music business “10-year overnight success,” others around the league were finally starting to take notice of this guy who had somehow been around forever.

The next season, Bailey was even better, racking up 18 goals and 53 assists for 73 points, all career highs. He scored his first, and so far only, hat trick in Columbus, a place where the Islanders have almost never enjoyed success. Predictably, they still lost that game.

He was named to the 2018 season’s All Star team, something most people had assumed he would never do. He also gave the most Josh Bailey quotes ever, using the word “honored” about a dozen times to describe how he felt about it. But this was a different Josh Bailey. The one we had been hoping to see since 2008.

Maybe it was finally gaining the confidence in himself to make the plays he always could. Maybe it was gaining the skill and strength to make those plays because he couldn’t before. Maybe it was the stability of being with the same team for a decade, something very few NHL players ever get to say they did.

Maybe it was that, of the members of TEH CORE, Bailey and Casey Cizikas are the last men standing. Okposo and Frans Nielsen had both left as free agents in 2017. Then Tavares and Martin (who eventually came back, much to the delight of Bailey’s adorable kids). The core defensemen gave way to a younger group that was even better. Somehow, the inconsistent kid had become the Islanders’ grizzled veteran.

He’s even got his own theme song. I mean, come on.

After all that upheaval, another strange thing happened: the Islanders got good. New management and coaching saw Josh Bailey as an indispensable part of a winning team. He’s penciled in on the team’s second line right now with Brock Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier, two other players who were known for inconstancy early in their Islanders careers but have also become key contributors. When this team is at its best, everyone on the roster is doing their part and pulling on the rope in the same direction. If one line falters or goes invisible for a little while, it reverberates throughout the rest of the lineup and they struggle. Perhaps more than any other line, the “Killer B’s” are the secret to the Islanders’ recent success.

Without Bailey, the Islanders don’t make back-to-back trips to the NHL semifinals. That is an incredible thing to think about if you remember seeing 2008 barely-out-of-junior Josh Bailey or even 2011 still-doesn’t-have-an-actual-position Josh Bailey. His unforgettable double overtime goal against Tristan Jarry and the Penguins last spring is both astronomically absurd and almost apologetically accidental.

Josh Bailey might stick out among the NHL Hall of Famers on the Islanders Top 10 scoring list, but he’s earned his place. He is the guy who’s experienced more of this franchise than any other player on the roster, living Everything Islanders for the last 14 years. He’s seen the worst things a player can see, and he’s seen how a team can turn things around in a matter of months. He’s gone from not knowing where he’d play next season to seeing a new forever home get built. Among post-Dynasty Islanders, no one player has been on this insane ride for this long and seen this much.

What a trip. Here’s to many, many more miles.