For a kid who’s been under the hockey microscope since he was in Grade 6, it has to feel a little like an interminable car trip that is finally ending.
John Tavares hasn’t quite arrived at his destination – the postseason, contending for a championship – but the onetime teenage phenom has certainly reached the outskirts of superstardom.
The first overall draft choice from 2009 is 22 now, in his fourth season of NHL hockey, and while there are vestiges of the guarded, monosyllabic kid who first broke into the league as a 19-year-old, there is assurance in his voice and ease in his manner.
He’ll tell you that’s a byproduct of feeling more comfortable as a man, and as a hockey player; the 2011-12 season was a breakout year for Tavares, who became a point-a-game player, the first quarter of this season has seen him emerge as a serious threat to win the league scoring title.
Whispers that his skating might hold him back from joining the NHL elite? Gone. All that talk that he didn’t have the strength to hold off NHL defencemen? Please.
On the opening shift of the Islanders’ 4-3 win over the streaking Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Thursday, Tavares darted into space and broke in alone on Habs goalie Carey Price.
He tried to go between the big goalie’s legs, but Price stopped him (it’s hard to keep the kid down, he would later set up a power-play goal with a sweet pass from behind the net).
In the second period, Tavares harried and chased Montreal’s Alexei Emelin in the Habs’ end, causing him to cough up the puck. Tavares then served a peach of an inside-out move and held off the bigger Emelin to create a shot for himself.
After the Isles clawed back a two-goal deficit to force overtime, Tavares maneuvered into the Montreal end and managed to twist a Montreal defender inside and out, the pass he delivered from his seat eventually landed on defenceman Thomas Hickey’s stick and in the net for the winning goal.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone in the league with that talent and that ability to protect the puck,” said Doug Weight, a former Islanders teammate who now acts as a senior adviser to the club.
You would expect a certain level of hyperbole from Tavares’ mentor – the Weights put him up during his early years in the league, Doug is something close to his dad-away-from-dad.
But the numbers don’t lie.
Playing on what is a decidedly mediocre club – the Isles were 28th in the NHL heading into Thursday’s date with the Montreal Canadiens – Tavares has managed to score 22 points in 17 games. His 11 goals are second only to league leader Thomas Vanek.
Tavares and linemates Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes have scored 24 of New York’s 45 goals.
Though the young centre is a minus player on the year, there’s a lot of that going around on the Islanders, who have allowed a league-worst 60 goals. Just one player, defenceman Brian Strait, has a plus rating.
Head coach Jack Capuano marvelled at the leaps and bounds Tavares has made in the past 18 months or so – “He’s our best player,” he said.
Weight said he has also become more voluble.
“People like to think he’s more introverted, he’s actually a very outgoing kid, I hope I pumped a little of that into him … he challenges himself, and he challenges his teammates,” he said. “Not only with actions, he’s a verbal leader and I think people don’t know that about John.”
Being a great player on a bad team can be corrosive, but Tavares isn’t a guy who has become accustomed to mediocrity.
“There’s no two ways about it, losing sucks, you hate to lose, your goal is to always win and eventually win a championship,” he said before facing Montreal.
At the same time, he has gained considerable maturity – teammates and coaches universally praise the seriousness with which he takes the game – and has acquired patience.
“You get to know yourself more, you mature, you learn the ups and downs of the season, going through it, the more understanding you have, I’ve been much better at dealing with certain situations and growing into a leader in the locker room as well,” he said.
The only time Tavares had been on a losing team before pulling on an Islanders’ shirt was in his first year of junior, when he was 15.
Since Tavares came aboard, the Islanders have lost 150-odd games.
But Veteran voices like winger Marty Reasoner are on hand to keep their young star’s spirits up.
“At times he can get frustrated, he wants us to be successful as a group and he takes a lot on himself. As a veteran guy you just try to make sure he realizes he’s on the right path,” Reasoner said.