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New York Islander John Tavares celebrates a goal on Jan. 15, 2011. (Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press/Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press)
New York Islander John Tavares celebrates a goal on Jan. 15, 2011. (Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press/Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press)

James Mirtle

John Tavares comes of age to give Islanders hope Add to ...

The one statistic, in a nutshell, explains the evolution of John Tavares as an NHL player.

In Year 1 he finished tied for 76th in league scoring as a 19-year-old. Then, as a sophomore last season, he jumped up into a tie for 28th.

This year, however, is Tavares’s coming-out party. He is on another level, with a recent hot streak putting him all the way up in 12th in scoring and on pace for 86 points entering Monday’s meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It may have taken him all of 208 NHL games to get here, but it’s safe to say that Tavares has entered superstar territory, at 21.

And not one person in the New York Islanders’ organization is surprised.

“He’s put his team on his back, similar to what’s happening in Pittsburgh right now with [Evgeni]Malkin,” Isles coach Jack Capuano said. “Those guys are doing a lot for their teams right now. Hopefully Johnny can continue that and other guys can feed off him.”

“You can tell that he’s getting better every year,” captain Mark Streit added. “His dedication is huge, and his work ethic is great as well. So he got stronger. He got faster. It’s all paying off.”

That’s the case in more ways than one, with Tavares landing a spot in his first all-star game this weekend in Ottawa just one sign of what’s likely to come.

More significantly, back in September before training camp opened, Tavares signed a six-year, $33-million (all currency U.S.) contract extension that runs until 2018 and eats into one year of unrestricted free agency.

The move surprised some in the hockey world, given he had locked in for so long with an organization that has had its fair share of off-ice turmoil, but it was the sort of commitment the team’s battered fan base had been longing for.

After years of losing seasons, low attendance and watching stars leave town or refuse to come at all, Tavares had made it clear he wanted to help.

Even without a new arena development to replace outdated Nassau Coliseum and uncertainty over the franchise’s long-term future, Islanders fans now point to the youngster from Oakville, Ont., and his loyalty to the organization as their main source of hope.

“As a diehard Isles fan, that contract extension was like years of sorrow being swept away,” Michael Brady wrote on Twitter this week. “A tremendous relief and a new beginning.”

Tavares further endears himself to the Isles’ faithful when he talks about the franchise in a positive light, something he did several times Monday during 20 minutes of taking questions in Toronto.

“It’s pretty special for me to be there and represent the Islanders,” he said of the all-star game nod at one point. “I’m really proud of that.”

His teammates talk about a player who has grown up, going from a boy to a man in two-and-a-half seasons while playing in circumstances where wins have been hard to come by.

“At first when he came in, he was really quiet,” Streit said. “Pretty shy. He was just, you know, 18. A young kid. He came in and didn’t say a lot. You couldn’t really joke around with him.

“Now, it’s a whole different story. He grew as a player; he grew as a person. He’s joking around, and he’s got a great personality.”

Not that everything is ever sunshine with the Islanders. Even after a run of respectability since Christmas, they remain near the Eastern Conference basement, a spot they’ve occupied often in missing the postseason the past four consecutive years.

Beyond Tavares, Streit and a few successful reclamation projects like Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau, New York lacks depth more than anything, in part due to their league-low $49.8-million payroll.

Now that they have their main attraction and that face of the franchise has grown up, the only question remains: Can they surround him with enough talent to win?

Or is the wait simply on until the team’s lease expires in 2015 and the arena discussion comes to a head?

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