TORONTO -- John Tavares sat in his stall Thursday morning inside the visitors dressing room at Air Canada Centre answering question after question about his rise to prominence and the New York Islanders' potential to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That's the way it is when a player is a blossoming superstar who has been in the public eye since he was a teenager. And that's the way it is when that player returns home as a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate.
For Tavares, 22, playing in Toronto has always been special. Having grown up Oakville, Ontario, just a few miles west of the city, he welcomes the opportunity to play in front of friends and family -- the people who helped him in his journey to make it to the NHL. This game, though, has special meaning because for the first time in his young professional career, he is playing on a team that appears destined to make the playoffs.
"I think it's always fun playing here, but the fact we're in a playoff race and I'm playing in front of so many people that have helped me along the way gives this game special meaning," Tavares admitted. "The first couple of games I played in Toronto earlier in my career were a little nutty. There were so many people who wanted to see me. Now we're in a bit of a routine, and to be truthful, my parents look after getting tickets to people more than me."
Through 43 games Tavares sits 16th in NHL scoring with 24 goals and 42 points. Many pundits have suggested if Tavares gets the Islanders into the playoffs, he would be a strong candidate to be a Hart Trophy finalist. That would be the culmination of four years of hard work that has enabled him to take his game to a new level each season.
Tavares broke into the League in 2009-10 scoring 24 goals and 54 points in 82 games, and in each successive season has increased his goal output and points total. Obviously that won't continue this year because of the lockout, but it is worth noting he is scoring at a 47-goal pace in a normal 82-game season, and that would be another career high.
Tavares' agent, Pat Brisson, who has other high-profile clients Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Matt Duchene, Patrick Kane, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin and Claude Giroux, said the young Islanders center is always looking for ways to be better.
"You get to know young players and the ones that are special, and those players have what I call a 'chip' in them," Brisson said. "These kids have that maturity about them in terms of how they absorb information and how serious and dedicated they are based on the information they are getting. When I first met John he was 17, and having spent time with Sidney and Jonathan Toews, I saw a lot of similarities. I saw the same traits that made those two guys special in John: wanting to learn and do the little things that made him better."
When Tavares played junior with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights, many were concerned about his skating. It's not that he couldn't get from Point A to Point B quickly; he just looked awkward getting there. That is no longer an issue. Thanks to plenty of intensive work in the offseason, Tavares is now considered a strong skater.
"I had pro scouts telling me in his second year, 'You know I saw Tavares last night and he's a good player, but I'm not so sure he can skate well enough,'" Brisson said. "He took power skating lessons and went to work. He was given the tools, but he put them into action. John Tavares is willing to pay the price to be better. He is extremely demanding of himself. The money is nice, no doubt about it. But he wants to be better. He is a fierce competitor."
Tavares takes particular delight in the fact that people are no longer critical of his skating, even though he feels he still has room for improvement.
"I have worked very hard on my skating," he said, "but I think I can still be so much better in that area. It is just starting for me. I realized I had to get better, and now I'm just trying to expand off it. It is rewarding to see my hard work pay off, though."
Tavares was very much in the public eye from the time the Ontario Hockey League changed its rules to allow him to play for the Generals when he was 15 years old. There was no question he was good enough, and the fact he had 45 goals and 77 points in 65 games his first season attested to that. In his second season, he had 72 goals and 134 points in 67 games. However, after playing four years of junior, some people began to pick his game apart.
"He scored 72 goals one year, so what did people expect, that he'd go out and score 100 the next year?" Brisson said. "Before the draft, some teams and people were speculating that he shouldn't go No. 1. The Islanders made him No. 1 and I give him credit because Long Island wasn't an attractive place to be at first. There were other franchises that were much further ahead, but he agreed to roll up his sleeves and try to make the Islanders a better team. I told [Islanders GM Garth Snow] the kid was willing to do whatever it takes to make the Islanders a better team. That's his character. John said he wanted to be No. 1 and he wanted to make it work. It wasn't easy all the time."
For Tavares, there was never any question about playing for the Islanders. There have been instances when players have told certain franchises not to draft them because they wouldn't report, but Tavares never considered that, even though the Islanders have gone through some pretty lean years.
"I came here and I had a great opportunity to play a prominent role at 18 years old," Tavares said. "I saw what the organization was trying to do and I knew where things were headed. Sometimes being on the outside, people get the wrong impression of an organization. We have a different attitude and there is a different culture here now. I believe in this group and I always felt it would be a great opportunity to try to turn things around here."
In terms of working on his game, Tavares is highly motivated. Brisson saw that in the player when he first took him on as a client at 18 years old. Tavares is the first to admit he looks to Crosby and Toews for motivation.
"Sid is the best player in the game, the best player in the world," Tavares said. "I know for myself, I am always looking for ways to get better and as much as I compete against him, you learn a lot from great players like Sid and Toews. You see their work ethic and their ability to beat you in so many different ways. I try to get better and be hard to read and hard to stop."
Brisson said, "There were times when John would say, 'If it's good enough for Sid, then it's good enough for me.' For John, like Sidney or Toews, it's having the ability to roll up his sleeves and go to work. He doesn't rely on anybody. He has great support from his parents and from me, but he is extremely goal-oriented and he'll pay the price to be better."
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