One year ago, Casey Bailey had his first and only multipoint game of his sophomore season. One power play goal and a literal last second tally by the forward spurred Penn State to a 5-4 victory in overtime against Michigan in what was only their second conference win of the year.
Today, it's unthinkable for Bailey to net more than one point in a game just once in a season. In fact, the junior has 10 multipoint games in 28 contests with eight matches left in Penn State's wild ride of a season.
In a year where the Nittany Lions have outperformed expectations across the board, for Bailey, this season has been a return to the flashes of greatness we saw in his freshman season in 2012-13.
As a freshman, the Anchorage, Alaska native tallied 27 points in 26 games to lead the team in their first Division I year. While nailing down the second spot on the squad in both goals and assists, Bailey was also the only team member that year to post more than a point per game.
Last season was a hiccup all around for the team in an eight-win year. The sophomore only put up 13 total points in a year where just one teammate, Eric Scheid, surpassed 20 on the season while being the lone Nittany Lion to go above the 10 goal threshold. Bailey, like the rest of the team, was in a slump. It was only towards the latter half of the year when the forward was able to find his gear, putting up nine of his 13 points in the last two months of the season.
Now, the Casey Bailey we all saw two years ago is back, and he looks like he's staying for good.
Along with being nominated for the Hobey Baker award with teammate Taylor Holstrom, there have been whispers that the Boston Bruins have interest in the junior forward as an unsigned free agent.
"There’s outside noise going on about maybe things that could happen after the season," Bailey said to reporters at the start of the month. "Right now, I’m not looking too deep into that. Until the end of the year, that is all just talk."
Though Bailey has denied his interest in jumping to the NHL until Penn State's season is over, the way the junior has played has started to turn heads and it's hard not to wonder what a player with his skills can bring to a club.
As a forward, Bailey certainly has the scoring touch needed to make it into the NHL. The junior is the only player in the Big Ten to have hit 20 goals on the season while sitting at fourth in the NCAA in goals, three behind Union's senior forward Daniel Ciampini for the top spot in the league.
While goals and points are all kept on a stat sheet, a lot of the things Bailey does aren't found on a page of rows and columns. Bailey is an opportunistic forward with great instincts and an even better nose for the puck. Take the GIF below, taken from Penn State's comeback 5-4 loss against Ohio State last month:
On the second of two goals for Bailey on the evening, the forward makes this scoring chance - and essentially Penn State's comeback - happen by forcing an Ohio State turnover. Thanks to pressure from Holstrom behind the net, Bailey (No. 25) cuts off the Buckeye's clearing attempt in the offensive zone and takes the wayward pass at the boards. Bailey shows good awareness on a no-look backhander back to Holstrom as the pair cycle positions and the senior threads the puck through traffic for the eventual goal-scorer to dig out of Ohio State's skates for his second strike of the game.
That clutch goal from Bailey has become a staple of his this season, managing to find the puck at an opportune time with the team down and putting it in the back of the net to spark a comeback.
Even throwing the puck on the net can make things happen, like this GIF of Bailey assisting on David Goodwin's tally to unknot a 2-2 deadlock with Wisconsin that the Nittany Lions ultimately won 5-2.
Despite getting hit on the nearside boards, Bailey lets go a simple looking shot at the Badger net that somehow finds its way through all the players in front and out to Goodwin at the other side of the cage for the score. Though it's a mostly luck kind of play, Bailey's awareness to fire a quick shot instead of absorbing the hit and trying to force the puck around behind the net is what makes this scoring opportunity happen.
Bailey's bread and butter, however, is the simple slap shot bomb you'd most often see from a defenseman from the blue line. Typically, the junior sets himself up at one of the circles and waits through the cycle for a teammate to pass him the puck, before he one-times a howitzer (oftentimes from a knee) through traffic and into the net. It doesn't always happen that way, as seen in the GIF below, but Bailey's specialty shot is his power slap shot from the face-off circles.
After seeing that one in person and hearing it fire off Bailey's stick like a missile rocket, I was expecting a smoldering hole behind Joel Rumpel's head where the puck had hit twine. (Unfortunately, as you can see, that wasn't the case.)
Of course, there's also the concern over his one down year sandwiched between two pretty spectacular ones. However, at this stage of his career, I wouldn't worry about his off-year just yet with such a small sample size of play. Bailey seems to make the necessary adjustments when in a slump and in doing so, he's tied for 15th in the league in points with 34 in 28 games.
While the pair of Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid are in a class by themselves, Casey Bailey has the chance to make a name for himself in the future if picked up by a club as an unsigned free agent. The forward brings the always needed scoring depth and has solid hockey intuition for a third-year NCAA player.
Though they have four current draftees in their lineup today, Penn State hasn't yet had an NHL player come through their ranks. But once this season ends, Casey Bailey might just have a legitimate chance to be their first.