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Whether Landing Fish or Reeling in Assists, Josh Bailey Thrives With Patient Approach

New York has found success behind its longest tenured player.

About a month ago, blessed with an off-day during the New York Islanders’ road tour through California, captain John Tavares indulged in a new hobby by organizing a group fishing trip. He found a charter company located along the coastline, with a boat big enough to fit himself and three teammates. For almost five hours they cast and reeled under the supervision of their guides, enjoying the oceanic views, returning ashore in time for dinner. Mostly they hooked calico bass, plentiful in those western waters, but Tavares also managed to wrangle a massive black sea bass with significant effort—witnesses estimate that the beast ranged between 50 and 65 pounds—and surprised everyone by landing a baby shark

For the only Islanders player whose tenure has lasted longer than Tavares, the afternoon excursion on Oct. 12 might as well have been housed in heaven. Josh Bailey spent summers fishing with family members near their home outside Toronto as a kid but didn’t fully dive into the craft until after his second NHL season, when he bought a summer lake cottage at age 20. Eight years later, the winger still spends most offseasons there, content to pass time with peace and a pole, separated from the outside world. “I’m super competitive, so fishing offered a challenge,” he explains. “Then obviously there are certain stresses that come along. On the waters, it’s certainly something to relieve that, put your mind in a different place.”

This passion surprises none of Bailey’s teammates. “It suits his personality,” says forward Cal Clutterbuck, one of the fishermen in the Islanders’ off-day foursome along with Bailey, Tavares and newly acquired winger Jordan Eberle. “He’s an easy-going guy, likes to relax, kick back and have a good time. Being in a non-stressful environment with a rod and a couple buddies is his element.” Which, if Clutterbuck can act as a rinkside psychologist for a moment, makes perfect sense.

On the ice, Bailey is a similarly quiet, patient, pass-first soul, “a calming presence” with “a special temperament” who lately has caught fire. Until Tuesday night’s overtime loss against Edmonton, Bailey was maintaining the NHL’s longest point streak at nine games—five were multi-point efforts—and had notched 15 assists over his first 14, more than any Islanders player in three-plus decades. “For me, when you want the puck and you feel like if you get the puck you can make something happen, that’s when you’re really on top of your game,” Bailey says. “I’ve been having fun with it. No matter who you’re playing with, it seems like you’ll have an opportunity to create something almost every shift.”

Over the past decade, ever since the Islanders twice traded down to nab Bailey ninth in the 2008 draft, they have reached three postseasons, made two coaching changes, and switched majority owners and home rinks once apiece. (This last part might soon change, depending on how fast matters progress in Belmont Park.) They endured five sub-80-point full seasons, hit their stride by reaching the second round for the first time since Al Arbour stood behind their bench, and then missed the playoffs again last spring. “We’ve definitely come a long way,” Bailey says. ”We had some tough years with losing. I think it builds your character, makes you grow up quick.”

They learned together, him and Tavares. “We were young and stupid, traveling the country, city to city, just living the dream,” recalls the all-star center, who arrived 12 months after Bailey as the 2009 first-overall pick. They slogged through the losing seasons, reveled during the highs, stuck around so long that one former teammate—Doug Weight—became their head coach. “I’m sure for some people that might sound weird, but it’s really not,” Bailey says. “Dougie was always someone I had a huge amount of respect for, even when I played with him. He was already a big-brother type.” It is instructive to hear peers describe Bailey in similar terms. “If you polled every guy on the team, they would tell you that Josh is their best friend,” says Calgary defenseman Travis Hamonic, who spent seven seasons with the Islanders. “He’s one of those people.” The type of guy, for instance, who helped teach Tavares to fish.

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Under different circumstances, the bright NHL floodlights might be shining onto Bailey for the status of his current contract, which carries a $3.3 million average annual value and expires next summer. Instead he shares a locker room with the shining jewel of the upcoming free agent class, should Tavares reach unrestricted status. “For me, it’s been nice to sneak under the radar,” Bailey says, a preferable position anyway. He does not keep social media accounts—“that’s probably been a good thing at certain points," he laughs—and enjoys the relative anonymity that life in New York now affords. Both of his sons were born at North Shore University Hospital, not far from where his family planted roots on Long Island. The lake cottage is where they get away each offseason, but this area has become home.

“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it,” Bailey says, wondering what July 1, 2018 might hold. “Anyone would. But anytime you go into a season, you’re just focused on that season. You’re not thinking years down the road. It hasn’t been any kind of distraction. And my mindset hasn’t changed. Being here for 10 years, I’d like that to continue and stay here. Hopefully we can make that work.” Fortunately this seems amenable from the Islanders’ end. “He’s been a high-character guy off the ice, very talented on the ice, and he doesn’t get the credit probably in years’ past that he deserves,” GM Garth Snow recently told SiriusXM NHL Network. “We think the world of him as another player that we want to keep here long-term.”

It is fair to wonder whether Bailey can keep up this blistering production pace, which has him averaging over a point per game for the first time ever. Of his 15 helpers this season, tied for third league-wide entering Tuesday, all but three were secondary assists. (The most recent one, last weekend against Colorado, was registered as Bailey had already reached the bench for a line change) “I really don’t think about it,” Bailey says. “I think the end of the season, when you get done for the year, that’s time for reflection. For now, you just want to keep on rolling, you know?”

Certainly he has done that much—and with occasionally atypical flair too. Midway through the second period against San Jose last month, Bailey intercepted a breakout pass in the Sharks’ zone and juked captain Joe Pavelski onto the ice. As he approached the crease, Bailey baited goalie Martin Jones by stick-handling to his backhand, then nudged the puck between his skates to shoot forehand. “I’ve seen him do the move in various situations,” Clutterbuck says. “Never seen him do it six feet from the crease and put the puck between his legs and score in a game.” True to form, Bailey reacted with little more than a slight smile, raising one arm only to pat defenseman Thomas Hickey on the head.

Last summer, reflection tugged Bailey in several directions. On the one hand, he had recorded a career-high 56 points and 43 assists, logged 82 games for the first time, and hit his stride while largely deployed at even strength alongside Tavares. But the Islanders also finished one point behind Toronto for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, “a tough pill to swallow.” 

So, like always, Bailey went to the water. For five days he and several family members vacationed in the Northwest Territories, fished along remote lakes near Yellowknife with the aid of a company called Plummer’s Arctic Lodges. It wasn’t quite like fishing in stock ponds, but close enough; according to Bailey, lake trouts are considered trophy catches at 20 pounds, and one day his boat landed more than 20 of them. “Like nothing I’ve ever seen before with the land,” Bailey says. “Pretty incredible. The views and everything about being up there is kind of surreal. Every time you look around, you feel like you’re seeing something new. Definitely something we’ll be talking about for a long time."