He really does look like a different player. New York Islanders centre John Tavares scored the winner in overtime here on Monday in front of his hometown crowd, and it was a thing of beauty. Off the breakout, he took a pass from teammate Travis Hamonic right before reaching the centre faceoff dot, zipped wide right around Maple Leafs forward Richard Panik and then drove hard to the slot through the young defence pairing of Morgan Rielly and Tim Erixon.
No one could handle his combination of power and speed. Few can these days.
Even his parents, who have seen him score thousands of goals, were visibly impressed as they celebrated the goal in the Air Canada Centre crowd. Rielly, meanwhile, simply stared up at the overhead screens to see what he had done wrong.
"I just tried to gain some speed," Tavares explained. "I saw their defenceman kind of backed off and kind of gave me the lane to the net."
"He's one of the best players in the world," lamented Leafs centre Peter Holland, who was tasked with shutting Tavares down. "He's so skilled … He's so strong on the puck down low in the offensive zone that it's tough to contain him."
The goal was Tavares's second point of the night, giving him a three-point cushion over Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom atop the NHL scoring list with less than 20 per cent of the season to go. Tavares's production hasn't been percentage-driven – the Islanders' shooting percentage with him on the ice is normal (8.6 per cent) – so you can argue he has even more to give at even strength.
That all makes him the favourite for the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer, which would be his first. Probably not his last.
Tavares's first game in Toronto back in November, 2009, is memorable because, as these things often go, there was plenty of hype around the budding star. But what stood out on that night was his lack of dynamism; he had a wide, deliberate stride, and at the NHL level, he looked slow.
That's not new criticism; that's what scouts talked about his entire draft year. The consensus No. 1 pick, a prolific goal scorer but not a fleet skater, was heading into a league that was becoming more and more about speed.
"Does it matter?" everyone wondered.
Tavares has since worked diligently at that part of his game, and you can see the results in that goal on Monday. His quick footwork builds speed on crossovers through the neutral zone and over the blueline, which is what allowed him to power-glide through Rielly and Erixon the other night. There's an efficiency to his skating that was missing previously.
Tavares isn't huge, but he has always had a low centre of gravity, and he makes it work for him. He has also logged countless hours in the gym to build the muscles in his core to give him the perfect stance for his body type.
There had been talk early in his career that maybe he might be more of a playmaker who could finish on one-timers and from in close, but now, Tavares can create plenty of scoring chances on his own. His team is better, yes, but it's not like he's had superstar linemates all year: winger Kyle Okposo played with him about 60 per cent of the time; Josh Bailey, Nik Kulemin, Anders Lee and Cory Conacher split time, too.
Tavares's shot generation and shooting percentage is up from the early years. But it's his improved skating that's most apparent.
"John had a very awkward, clunky, some might have said slow stride," his long-time Toronto-based skating instructor, Dawn Braid, told NHL.com in a story back in 2012. "He was very off-balanced."
"John has evolved," added his trainer, Richard Clark, whose son Wes – Tavares's close friend – works with the Leafs in a player development role and was watching Monday's game from the press box. "He has always had this great work ethic, but every year he's getting better."
That's what we're now seeing on the ice. He might have contended for a scoring title last season had it not been for the knee injury he suffered playing for Canada at the Winter Olympics. His points per game prior to Sochi were actually higher than they are this year.
If you look at this era of players, in the decade from the full-season lockout in 2004-05 to now, Tavares is right up there with the elite scorers despite playing on a weak team (until this year). His 0.93 points per game in his first six NHL seasons trail only seven players – Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, Backstrom, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Kane – and most of those benefited from the high-scoring, power-play-filled early years in that time frame.
Tavares and Stamkos are the only true comparables in that sense – and that's a good group to be in.
More than anything, Tavares's story is the perfect example of how even the very best players can continue to get better, turning weaknesses into strengths.
Until strengths are all that are left.