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Islanders forward Josh Bailey started this season with six points in five games and was feeling better than he ever has as an NHLer until a hip pointer sidelined him for a couple of games. ((Tom Mihalek/Associated Press))

With some hesitation, Josh Bailey says it was a play he probably would have attempted last season.

Standing near the opposition's net, the New York Islanders forward held the puck to draw some New York Rangers toward him, turned away and then slid a behind-the-back pass through some traffic to Blake Comeau, who beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the go-ahead goal in a 6-4 victory.

"I remember there were a couple of plays my first year that me and Kyle Okposo hooked up on that were similar," the 21-year-old Bailey said over the phone from Long Island, N.Y.

Keeping Bailey paid off

Josh Bailey found himself in an emotional tug of war when the New York Islanders sent 18-year-old prospect Nino Niederreiter back to the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League last week.

On one hand, Bailey figured his former linemate would have held his own in the NHL, but he can also see the benefit of Niederreiter receiving more ice time and seasoning at the junior level.

Two years ago, Islanders general manager Garth Snow and head coach Scott Gordon elected to keep Bailey with the big club, some might say because of the team's wafer-thin lineup, in terms of potential top-nine forwards. That move has paid off as the now 21-year-old forward has made huge strides in his two-plus NHL seasons.

"We knew that if he stayed here, we could get a lot of the bad things out of his game and make the process quicker for him," Gordon told New York reporters of Bailey.

"If we had sent him back to junior, he would have gotten a bunch of points, probably would've won the Memorial Cup [with Windsor]. He would've gone to world juniors, but … right now, he could be the player we saw last year instead of being the player he is now."

Gordon added Bailey, who put weight on over the summer, is much stronger on the puck this season. He even centred New York's top line when a concussion forced John Tavares to miss three games.

Bailey modestly impressed in his rookie year, notching seven goals and 25 points in 68 games with a minus-14 rating. Last season, he was plus-5 with 16 goals and 35 points.

"I wouldn't consider that [18-year-old year] a loss because you learn so much," Bailey told CBCSports.ca. "It's definitely a learning year, picking up things from the older guys. I think going into that summer [of 2009], I learned a lot more about training and being a pro.

"If I looked at it from the standpoint of my first training camp to my second and now my third, I've grown so much as a person. You're a kid when you come in and the second year you're a man, you know how to carry yourself. You definitely mature very quickly [as a young NHLer] and it leads to more results on the ice."

— Doug Harrison

"I think this year, definitely more than the last two years, you just know what to expect [on the ice] and how much time you have, and what plays you can't do that you could do in junior."

During the 2007-08 season, Tim MacLean was in his second year scouting the Ontario Hockey League for the Islanders, and regularly attended games involving Bailey and the Windsor Spitfires.

Bailey was part of a star-studded line with Taylor Hall, the NHL's first overall draft pick in 2010, and Greg Nemisz, who went 25th overall to Calgary at the 2008 draft after the Islanders twice traded down before selecting Bailey ninth.

Recalling Bailey's work on the Comeau power-play goal in that Oct. 11 win over the Rangers, MacLean said it conjured up memories of the then 18-year-old slowing the play down and picking apart OHL defences.

"That's what he used to do in junior. The confidence to make that play [against the Rangers] is a pretty big jump," MacLean said. "That showed me Josh is getting extremely confident in his offensive abilities again."

Bailey would agree. Now in his third NHL season, he scored three goals and six points in the first five games before a hip pointer forced him to sit out two games.

Packs on weight

The native of Bowmanville, Ont., was feeling better than ever as an NHLer after he spent the summer putting 10 pounds on his now six-foot-one, 200-pound frame.

The key, said Bailey, was adding weight without affecting the speed he had gained the previous off-season. Bailey feels he is better prepared to control the play and take it to the opposition.

"I definitely showed a few flashes in the first few games this year of playing the way I want to play the rest of my career," said Bailey, who saw a 19-point jump in his plus/minus ranking from his rookie season to last year.

"I haven't found the consistency the past couple of games [since returning from injury], but every player goes through that each year and you just have to remember what gave you success."

For Bailey, it means using his outstanding hockey sense and playmaking ability while taking punishment in front of the opposition's net.

"There's lots of little plays that other people don't notice, but I notice when you're in the play or the corners that I wouldn't have been able to make last year because I was a little weaker and smaller than some of the other guys. Now, I feel I can win those battles and fight off checks a lot better."

The puck is also exploding off Bailey's stick more this season on one-timed shots and snap shots, which he attributes to the added strength.

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A bigger and stronger Bailey is now winning puck battles against the likes of Colorado's Matt Duchene, left. ((Jim McIsaac/Getty Images))

Some hockey observers, like MacLean, would point to Bailey's character and commitment to being the best player possible for his emergence this season.

A conversation between MacLean and Spitfires vice-president and general manager Warren Rychel — the former NHL tough guy — never ends without a few words on Bailey's progress.

"It shows something that his junior team three years later, after winning back-to-back Memorial Cups [in 2009 and 2010], still cares about how Josh is doing. He had that big of an impact there."

But you wouldn't have known it on NHL Draft Day 2008 in Ottawa when Islanders general manager Garth Snow and former assistant GM and chief of scouting Ryan Jankowski's selection of Bailey drew a chorus of boos from fans attending the team's draft party at Nassau Coliseum.

'He's one of the few players who got less hype because he was good defensively.' — Islanders amateur scout Tim MacLean on Bailey

New York had the fifth overall pick but traded with No. 7 Toronto and No. 9 Nashville, figuring Bailey would still be available.

"He's one of those guys that got really underrated, I think, by the media, even after we drafted him because he had been labeled a very good two-way player," said MacLean. "But he had 96 points and 29 goals in his draft year. He was a very good offensive player who just happened to be really responsible defensively.

"He's one of the few players who got less hype because he was good defensively."

MacLean said the draft-day trades showed the Islanders can pinpoint players they want and get them, while the accumulation of three draft picks helped grow the organization.

"You can take a shot at a Travis Hamonic," he said, "who we picked higher than a lot of teams had him [second round, 53rd overall], and Matt Martin (fifth round, 148th overall) who's up playing with us now. David Ullstrom [fourth round, 102nd overall] just came over [from Sweden] and is putting points up in the AHL as rookie [seven in eight games with Bridgeport through Nov. 3]."

Looking back, Bailey said he wasn't affected by the negativity shown by some Islanders fans on draft day, and simply wants to continue showing them with his play why management deemed him a first-rounder.

"I'm definitely proud of being in my third year here and a lot of it is the organization giving me the opportunity," he said. "You're never satisfied. If you are, then something's wrong, so I think you always have to shoot for the stars and keep trying to get better."

That shouldn't be a problem for a more confident Bailey.