Almost a decade ago, Brendan Witt was the veteran in the corner, quietly enjoying a moment of Zen and a cup of locker room Joe while his younger teammates stretched and gabbed about the night before. When the former Islanders defender visited his old team after their game in Los Angeles last month, Witt grinned when he learned the contemplative veteran in the corner with the coffee was now Josh Bailey.
"Bails was such a great kid," Witt recalled of his teammate's rookie season yesterday in a phone conversation from California. "Quiet, reserved…just 18 years old. He had an eagerness to learn what it took to make it in the NHL. Billy Guerin took him under his wing and we all tried to do our best for Josh. It was a tough season, but people should understand that Bails always had the determination. He cared. Stayed after practice, lived in the weight room. Never stopped putting in the time, asking the right questions.
"He's a very good NHL player now. To see him get better every year and really take off lately is gratifying for any of us around back then."
It's easy to write about Bailey today, now that he's the NHL's Second Star of the Week and racking up assists like Witt blocked shots. Bailey, prone to slumps and bouts with confidence, has often been a lightning rod for criticism during down seasons in the Garth Snow administration. Before last season, Bailey only eclipsed the 40-point mark once in his NHL career, disappointing for a player with his ability. Like a lot of players before they reach their true prime, Bailey has been a victim of thinking too much.
But you can never care too much, and everyone could see Bailey's talent and commitment during his awkward rookie season in 2008-09. Think about that team, the one that begat John Tavares: Mark Streit, a defenseman with 56 points, led the Islanders in scoring by 17 points.
Earlier that June, Bailey was selected ninth overall in the draft. Snow moved back twice in the draft to take him - collecting assets while saying the usual GM line that he got the player he wanted all along. With that comes some pressure. Bailey asked for none of it.
"When you look back at that time, Josh really handled everything well," said Bruno Gervais, who welcomed Bailey into the home he shared with Kyle Okposo, Tim Jackman, Nate Thompson and Thompson's black Lab. They called it the "Frat House."
"Josh stayed positive and kept his focus on developing into a good player through everything - the pressure of being the first round pick, being a kid on a team that really struggled," continued Gervais. "To me, he gets his positive viewpoint from his Mom and Dad, who are two of the nicest and most optimistic people you'll ever meet. Megs (Bailey's wife) is the same way. The other thing is, Bails is one of the smartest hockey players around. He's always been a second ahead of just about everyone else. It's taken time to put it all together."
Bailey certainly has over his current nine-game points streak, with two goals and 14 assists for 16 points since scoring a goal with Witt in the crowd on Oct. 15 in LA.
"He's a playmaker more than a goal scorer, even going back to junior, so if you put him with Tavares he's going to make Johnny T's life so much easier," said Gervais, who retired as a player this summer and is now an analyst for RDS. "Josh developed in the spotlight of the NHL. Making the Islanders as a teenager, he had to grow up fast. And he had the label that comes with being a first-rounder."
Eventually, there comes a point when players are no longer viewed by their teammates through the prism of being the hotshot first-round pick. They are judged by their commitment to the team, to getting better. Many highly-skilled youngsters have lost their way in the NHL, often talking a bigger game than they could ever deliver. That was never a problem for the humble Bailey, who smiles, talks softly, likes to hunt and fish, and still drives his beloved Jeep Cherokee when he's back home in Ontario.
From his rookie season until now, Bailey has worked hard at his craft and never has pouted or acted like he wanted to be anywhere else. A potential unrestricted free agent next July 1, Bailey may eclipse 700 NHL games played by then and could play at least another 500.
Both sides would like to do a deal. The Islanders know what they have in Bailey and want him to stay. Doug Weight, who was on the 2008-09 team, is a fan. Bailey hasn't considered playing anywhere else. There may continue to be some highs and lows, but Bailey was raised as an Islander and wants to stay one.
It absolutely counts for something that Bailey never lost the faith or respect of the many players to come and go from the Islanders' locker room over the last nine years.
"We all knew Josh was a 'hockey player,'" Bill Guerin texted on Sunday, just before taking a seat in Brooklyn in his role as Penguins' assistant GM and watching Bailey get another two assists in the win over Colorado. "He was just really young for the league back then. You could see him do smart things on both sides of the puck. With younger players they usually don't understand or want to play a two-way game. Josh always could and would. Every year he's been in the league, he's only gotten better."