SYOSSET, N.Y. – Josh Bailey flashed a wide, kid-like grin – quite apropos for an 18-year-old hockey player just starting to live the NHL life.
The New York Islanders’ most recent first-round draft pick dressed in the orange and blue for the first time at a rookie minicamp this week and took his first spin at the suburban practice rink.
Any impressions he can make on that otherwise ordinary sheet of ice could mean the difference between a ticket to the big leagues or another season back in juniors.
“I think about it all the time,” he said. “You can’t come in here and not do well. It’s just up to me to get in the best shape that I can and do as well as I can in this camp and the next camp and hopefully give myself the best shot.”
Bailey came to camp expecting to shine for coach Ted Nolan, the Islanders’ bench boss for the previous two seasons who had one year left on his contract.
Nolan arrived in New York on Monday and met with general manager Garth Snow. What Bailey didn’t know was Nolan’s tenure with the team had just ended. Nolan often relied on veteran players in his lineup, but Snow and the Islanders are committed to a youth movement.
The gap couldn’t be bridged, and Snow and Nolan split over philosophical differences.
Bailey and his teammates settled into the dressing room and relaxed, but the calm was soon broken.
“This is a business,” he said, clearly learning quickly. “We were just watching TV and it came across the bottom of the screen. I was thinking, ‘I’m with the Islanders right now and I didn’t know.’
“We put our faith in Garth and all them. All that stuff is out of my control, so I can’t worry about it. I’ve just got to worry about what I can do to succeed.”
Bailey was chosen with the No. 9 pick in last month’s draft, and already was viewed with a questionable eye. There isn’t much debate that he will be a fine NHL prospect, he was considered to be among the top 15 available North American skaters.
Maybe he was a reach with the ninth choice, but that wasn’t an issue, either. The Islanders just came off a season in which they missed the playoffs and had more points than only three other clubs.
After the draft lottery, they were left with the fifth pick but didn’t stay there. They dropped down two spots after a swap allowed Toronto to jump up to take hard-hitting defenceman Luke Schenn. With a chance to pick at No. 7, the Islanders traded with Nashville and moved back another two places – picking up some more middle-round picks in the exchange.
Finally, they made Bailey their man – the one they said they had their eyes on all along.
“There’s obviously going to be people that maybe didn’t understand,” Bailey said. “There are going to be lots of expectations, which I think is a good thing. I put pressure on myself to do well so a little extra added pressure is not going to bug me. I’m just going to go out there and do the best I can to hopefully impress the fans and make the team. Hopefully the fans like me.”
There is no doubt they want to. The Islanders, often in transition from the front office down, are not a popular landing place for in-their-prime free agents. New York watches as Manhattan’s Rangers add high-profile stars while the Islanders are left hoping that aging veterans such as captain Bill Guerin and Doug Weight have enough left to teach the kids and maybe make a run to the playoffs.
“Being a younger guy with a youth movement, there’s pressure that comes along with that,” Bailey said. “At the same time, it’s really exciting. You want to be drafted by a team that you can be a part of early.”
While franchise goalie Rick DiPietro is the face of the team, guys like Bailey and Kyle Okposo and Blake Comeau – who made their NHL debuts the past two seasons – are the future.
“I’m only 22 and I feel like I’m the old guy,” Comeau said. “It’s good to be in an organization where they want to give young guys a chance and develop them. If you look around the league, the teams that have success have a good mix of older guys and veterans and a good mix of young guys.”
It’s a lot to ask of the trio, led in age by Comeau who has all of 54 games of NHL experience.
“Other people are kind of pegging that on us a little bit, but I’m just going to go out there and play my game and play the best I can,” Okposo said. “That’s always what I’ve done in every spot I’ve gone to. I’ve been looked at as the go-to guy in previous years, maybe not so much here. I’ve just kind of looked at it as a challenge. It’s really never been about pressure for me.
“I like being one of the better players and one of the guys they kind of look to to score the big goal or make the big hit.”
Okposo, the No. 7 overall pick two years ago, left the University of Minnesota last season. He had a brief stint with Bridgeport (AHL) before playing the final nine games with the Islanders.
His stall is right next to Bailey’s at minicamp and the two are rooming together.
“The younger guys look up to us,” the 20-year-old Okposo said. “Maybe we’ve played just a few games, but they’re asking us questions about how it is and what the experience is like. It’s pretty cool that we’re able to answer questions like that.”
He is also serving as social director for his new buddy Bailey.
“He’s been picking my brain a little bit,” Okposo said. “It’s been good to talk to him, give him some insight, maybe take him out for dinner one of these nights to a hot spot on Long Island and just kind of show him around.
“He’s kind of soaking it in.”