Bailey accepts demotion as learning process
"The last couple of games I was there," he said, "it felt like going into the game that it was David vs. Goliath. That's a terrible mind-set to have, and it takes time to break out of that. You need to slowly regain your confidence after that, but it's frustrating . . . You can just feel it, even when you're not there."
But playing hockey is fun again for Bailey, the 21-year-old former first-round draft pick who, until Nov. 24, had known nothing but the NHL in his professional career. He has five goals and 14 points in nine games for Bridgeport, which is 5-1-3 in the games Bailey has played.
His jump from junior hockey standout to NHL regular was not uncommon, and more and more in this salary-cap era, there will be legions of talented young players who will never know life in the minors.
But Bailey knows it now. The shock of being sent down to the Sound Tigers wore off fast - "we had a game the same night," he said - and what's settled in, along with a rediscovery of playing without pressure and the positive feeling of winning a few games, is the reason Garth Snow maneuvered to grab Bailey with the ninth pick in the 2008 draft. More than anyone, it seems, Bailey, even at 21, understands the big picture.
He knows that a remarkable confluence of events brought him here, and that it takes a remarkable mental strength to see far enough down the road to where a month or two months or even the remainder of a season in the AHL will go a long way toward making him the player he wants to be in the NHL.
"He's a special person," Snow said. "He's a very big part of what we're trying to do."
Almost no one outside of NHL players and front-office types knows that the key number to reach as a young player is 160. That's the service time in games played that a player must achieve before he requires waivers to be sent down.
After the Islanders' 2-1 overtime loss to the Thrashers on Nov. 21, Bailey was at 159. With Scott Gordon having been fired a week earlier, with Bailey struggling along with all of his teammates (no points in 13 games before being sent down) and with the Islanders in need of a roster shake-up but without the desire to trade any of their valuable assets, Snow decided to send Bailey down.
"I think Snowy has always - we've always had a great relationship," Bailey said. "He's the one who drafted me. He's the one who brought me into the league at a young age. He's never done anything for the wrong reasons, so I think I'd like to still believe that. We still have a great relationship through this. I still love all of the guys up there, still get along with everyone and still get along with Garth just the way I did before."
Then it was on Pat Bingham - Bridgeport's longtime assistant coach who was promoted to head coach when Jack Capuano went up to coach the Islanders - to help Bailey rediscover his talents.
"It's not like he's playing 25-plus minutes a night. He's playing around 20 every night, and those are obviously first-line minutes, but I feel like if you overplay any player, they're going to start to take shortcuts," Bingham said. "They're going to choose to pace themselves in certain areas . . . From what I see, he is playing hard every second, every shift that he's out there, and I think that's contributing to his success and that's contributing to our success. It's made the game fun for him, and I think it drives him that he's a key cog in our success.
"If that's what Garth wanted, to instill that edge, that sharpness, that desire and passion for the game, I think that's what's occurring right now. So hopefully, that's an experience, an invaluable experience that he gains from being here that he can take back there, because he seems like the kind of guy that can be a leader in the NHL and on Long Island if he goes back and brings that to the equation."
Right now, that is a very firm "if." Snow said he has no plans to bring back Bailey in the short term. If Bailey goes back, he goes back to stay, so he waits.
He doesn't wonder, though.
"Game by game, day by day," he said. "All this seems so cliche, but it's really the way you have to take things, it really is. You can't be focusing on this coming contract or on 10 years from now. It's about living in the now and playing now. That's just what I'm doing."
And in doing that, he's helping himself and the Islanders.
More than it would seem possible.