Hey Josh Bailey! The Rise & Fall of a Recent Islanders Icon

It’s no secret that Josh Bailey is having a bad season. The New York Islanders are putting together a playoff-caliber campaign but their longest-tenured player has become unplayable down the stretch. He is not only a weak link on the ice but a liability as opponents are taking advantage of his lackluster play on the ice.

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After 15 years with the team, Bailey’s tenure looks all but over with the Islanders. His decline inevitably will force general manager Lou Lomariello to leave the veteran off the roster one way or another. In a few seasons, Bailey has seen a significant fall and leaves a unique mark on the franchise that drafted him.

Bailey’s Early Years

Bailey was drafted in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft with the ninth overall selection. This was the same class that had Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, and Erik Karlsson, all of whom have gone on to become perennial All-Star caliber players. When Bailey was drafted, the hope was that he’d become an elite top-line center who could create scoring chances with his vision and passing skills. His 2007-08 season with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) displayed his star potential as he had 29 goals and 67 assists, leaving him only four points away from a 100-point season. He was ready for the NHL and at 19 years old looked like an ideal player to provide an immediate impact on the Islanders’ roster.

Josh Bailey New York Islanders
Josh Bailey, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The success from the OHL didn’t translate to the NHL level early on in his career. While Bailey scored 10 goals or more in six of his first eight seasons, he failed to score 40 points in that time. The Islanders were in the middle of a stretch where they only made the playoffs once in seven years and finished last in the division six times. They were hoping Bailey could help the rebound as an elite player. Instead, he was a middle-six forward and not a star-caliber one that could lead the team.

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Considering where Bailey was drafted, it looked like he was turning into a bust. The Islanders used the ninth overall pick in the draft to select a contributor when the expectation is to land a great player. By drafting Bailey, they passed on Karlsson and forward Jordan Eberle, two elite players who were selected later in the first round. Fortunately for him, as the Islanders started to improve so did his production.

Islanders’ Success Kickstarted Bailey’s Career

Bailey finally hit his stride in the 2016-17 season, playing in all 82 games while scoring 13 goals and a team-high 43 assists. He was starting to emerge as the elite passer in the offense and find his role in the forward unit along with other players entering the primes of their careers, specifically, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and John Tavares. He was part of a young and promising Islanders core that looked poised to become a contender. The team finished in seventh place in the Metropolitan Division in 2017-18 but with the right head coach, they had the roster in place to make a big leap in the Eastern Conference.

When Barry Trotz was hired in 2018, Bailey was an integral part of the top six. Trotz fixed the defense which allowed 3.57 goals per game in 2017-18 but only 2.33 goals per game in his first year behind the bench, helping the Islanders become a well-rounded team. Bailey meanwhile helped carry the offense, scoring 16 goals and 40 assists, giving him the second-most points on the team behind only Mathew Barzal, who was making his mark as one of the best young skaters in the league. With a significantly improved defense and a productive offense, the Islanders were back to being a contender.

Trotz Nelson Ho-Sang
Barry Trotz, New York Islanders, September 17, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Then came Bailey’s iconic moment and the biggest goal of his career. The Islanders were back in the playoffs and facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Game 1 was a back-and-forth battle that went into overtime tied 3-3 in front of a nervous but roaring crowd at Nassau Coliseum. The fans were excited to finally have a playoff game back on Long Island. That said, they were well aware of the Penguins’ ability to come back and steal victories as they scored in the last minute of regulation to tie the game. To make matters worse, Bailey hit the post in the final seconds of the third period, making it seem like the Islanders couldn’t catch a break and were destined for another heartbreaking loss.

Barzal carried the puck into the offensive zone and instead of immediately shooting it, held on long enough to leave goaltender Matt Murray sprawling to make a save on the shot. Barzal’s shot created a juicy rebound with Bailey flying into the offensive zone with nobody in his path and Murray in no position to make a save, allowing him to score the game-winning goal.

The goal had the fans going wild and singing his iconic song “Hey Josh Bailey!” a parody of DJ Otzi’s “Hey Baby” which has become an Islanders fan tradition. More importantly, Bailey’s goal gave the Islanders momentum in the series and they would never look back, sweeping the Penguins in four games.

It was the highlight moment of Bailey’s career but the overtime goal also was the first big moment in a strong run for the Islanders. While they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, they made their mark as a contender in the Eastern Conference. In the next two seasons, they reached the Eastern Conference Final, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 and 2021 with Bailey being a big part of the team’s success. He was top five in points scored on the roster in both seasons and particularly stepped up as a passer on the wing, creating scoring chances for Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier.

Bailey’s Decline

The past two seasons have seen Bailey go from bad to worse. His skating skills have declined and his overall quickness has deteriorated as well. What made him a reliable forward, specifically his ability to find open skaters in the offensive zone and quickly pass the puck to them suddenly was nonexistent. Bailey lost the attribute that made him valuable to the Islanders throughout his career, making him a weak link on the ice.

In the 2021-22 season, he scored 14 goals and 30 assists. However, for the first time under Trotz, he failed to find a role in the forward unit. He wasn’t a reliable passer on the Nelson line and couldn’t form a strong connection with Barzal either, who also took a step back as he struggled without a sharpshooter on his wing. By the end of the season, Bailey was playing alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a line change that improved the offense but saw him disappear. With Pageau being the primary puck handler and starting up the offense, Bailey was forced to become a shooter on the wing.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau New York Islanders
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While the 2021-22 season was a lost one for the entire team as they missed the playoffs, the 2022-23 season was the one where Bailey fell apart. He not only continued to decline but was oftentimes the worst skater on the ice. It forced first-year head coach Lane Lambert to limit his playing time and move him to the bottom six. Bailey’s 15:11 average ice time is the second-lowest mark of his career and despite avoiding the injury big, he has only played in 63 games as he has been a healthy scratch throughout the season.

The longest-tenured player on the Islanders, someone who has given the fans and the franchise a lot of memories, was suddenly unplayable. Iconic players declining is an inevitability of the game and it forces front offices to make difficult decisions but Bailey’s collapse was unprecedented and took the Islanders by surprise. At 33 years old, he wasn’t able to contribute to a playoff-caliber team, even in a minimal role.

What’s Next For Bailey

It’s difficult to see a scenario where Bailey is on the Islanders next season. He’s under contract for one more year but the Islanders can’t afford to have him on the roster, especially if they are contending. They are looking to win the Stanley Cup and can’t have a liability like Bailey weighing them down.

Josh Bailey New York Islanders
Josh Bailey, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The problem is that it’s complicated to move on from Bailey. Teams won’t want to acquire him and pick up his $5 million contract. Lamoriello will try to trade him in the offseason but won’t throw in a prospect or a draft pick just to not have Bailey on the roster.

The last option Lamoriello has is a buyout. It’s not ideal but it will save the Islanders $1.6 million in salary cap space, making it a viable option. Otherwise, the hope for both the Islanders and Bailey is a retirement in the offseason. He won’t be retiring on a high note. However, Bailey will leave the team with fond memories and a lasting legacy as a pivotal part of recent successful seasons.

Lou Lamoriello New York Islanders
Lou Lamoriello of the New York Islanders attends the 2019 NHL Draft (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Once Bailey retires, it won’t be the end of his time with the Islanders. The team he’s spent his entire career with will have plenty of opportunities for him within the organization. His former teammate, Thomas Hickey, is thriving as an analyst for both MSG with the Islanders and NHL Network with his hockey intelligence and understanding of the league impressing most viewers. Bailey’s hockey intelligence will allow him to find a job after his playing career, especially if he wants to go into coaching. His vision and understanding of the game that made him a valuable player will allow him to become a savvy offensive-minded coach.