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Tavares out to prove his doubters wrong

Sunday, 11.16.2008 / 11:30 PM / 2009 NHL Entry Draft

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

John Tavares said he didn't come into the 2008-09 season with a chip on his shoulder. But he certainly could be forgiven if he did.

Tavares, in the center of the spotlight for seemingly as long anyone can remember, has been the target of criticism by scouts and fans for any number of reasons, ranging from his skating ability to his scoring output to his overall team play.

Over the summer, Tavares said he worked as hard as he could to prove to everyone what kind of player he really was.

"Things didn't finish the way I would have liked them to, especially in the (Ontario Hockey League) playoffs," Tavares told NHL.com. "I wanted to come back and show some people that I'm a good hockey player and I can be effective each and every night."

So far, the Oshawa Generals center has been more than just good. Through 21 games, he's tied for second in the OHL with 16 goals and he's third with 31 points. He's been more committed to playing a full, 200-foot game; he's playing on the power play and killing penalties, and his three shorthanded goals lead the OHL.

"He's playing with determination," said E.J. McGuire, director of NHL Central Scouting. "I like the kind of fire he's playing with regardless of why he's playing with it."

Tavares has proven he can be a star scorer and a sublime playmaker. Now, as captain of the Generals, he's showing that he can combine being the best player on the ice with being the best leader off it.

"It's a great honor, being recognized by your teammates and the organization as the leader of the hockey club," Tavares said. "Be the voice and have accountability. ... To be a captain for Oshawa is an honor for me."

"His attitude and his disposition have been that of a leader," said Generals coach Chris DePiero. "After practices he's in the weight room. ... We lost a big game to London and he and Michel Del Zotto and Connor Stokes were in the weight room and an hour after the game when I left, he was still pounding the weights. And when you throw in the player he is, if there's a timing of things, it just made the timing right."

As an example of that leadership, DePiero related a story from Generals training camp, when Tavares organized a team outing to Rogers Centre for a Blue Jays game.

"I get a call from the Blue Jays and they asked if he (Tavares) could throw out the first pitch, and John's reaction was, 'Can my teammates come on the field?'" said DePiero. "If they had more lead time and it was more of a planned thing they could have, but that was his first reaction. In my mind, that speaks to where he's at and where he wants to be."

Where he really wants to be is the NHL, and since he was a teenager, that's where most hockey fans have wanted to see him.

Tavares exploded into the hockey consciousness when he was granted exceptional-player status at age 14, which allowed him to enter the 2005 OHL Priority Draft and play in the league days before his 15th birthday. After being the first player picked by Oshawa, he had 45 goals and 77 points and was named OHL and Canadian Hockey League rookie of the year. He followed that with a remarkable 72-goal, 134-point season in 2006-07. He broke Wayne Gretzky's league record for goals by a 16-year-old, and won OHL and CHL player of the year awards.

But last season, with expectations in the stratosphere, he "slumped" to 40 goals and 118 points, and his game was torn apart like a steak thrown to hungry wolves. Of course, those same critics disregarded his 78 assists, which were second in the OHL; his league-best seven shorthanded assists; and his 38 power-play assists, which tied for second in the league. And those 118 points? It was the third-highest total in the league.

Suddenly, Tavares no longer was the sure-shot first pick of the 2009 Entry Draft. His flaws were many, his skills downgraded and he was seen as a flash in the pan, a bust before he even had a chance to boom in the NHL.
"I wanted to come back and show some people that I'm a good hockey player and I can be effective each and every night." -- John Tavares
"The expectations are unrealistically high in that he does everything and that he never makes a mistake and he's perfect," said McGuire.

"None of that was John's fault, that hype," added NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards. "If you said I had a guy who scored 40 goals up for the draft, I would say, 'Where could I draft him?' Forty goals is a great year. If you strip everything away from it, here's a guy who had 118 points in 59 games, and you add the World Juniors stats, that's a damn good year. I think a lot of this stuff is being drummed up by people who want to create a different story."

Tavares said he never read any of the stories about him, saying he only read the newspaper and NHL.com to follow the fortunes of his hockey-playing friends, like Steven Stamkos, Sam Gagner and Kyle Turris.

He played midget hockey with Gagner, and skated on the Gagner family backyard rink, which had been built by Gagner's father, former NHL player Dave Gagner.

"I don't go on those message boards," Tavares said. "I just try to focus on what I have to do to get myself ready for the next level."

If you ask the people who see him the most, there's not much he still has to do. His hands, playmaking ability and hockey sense have him atop most draft lists.

 
 
"The way he sees the ice and passes the puck through traffic, draw the comparison to whoever you want, but when you watched Wayne Gretzky, if you put your stick on the ice, you'd get the puck on your stick at some point," said Edwards. "John is phenomenal at getting the puck through traffic to his linemates, getting to openings. The way he reads the play and can get to where he figures the rebounds will be and bangs in the rebound. He's a real smart player."

"There's a lot of attributes he brings to the table," said DePiero. "He's one of those guys, the things he does in the offensive zone will bring people out of their seats. It's truly amazing."

No player in junior hockey is a complete package, whether it's John Tavares or anyone else. The knocks on Tavares still are his skating and his defensive awareness, but the fact that Tavares understands them and is doing his best to improve them speak volumes about the kind of person and player he wants to be.

"If you're going to identify things in your own head as a young man that you need to improve on, it can only help you," said Edwards.

Tavares said he has worked to improve skating. If you believe the critics, Tavares is chopping ice with every stride. In reality, that's far from the truth. And even if he isn't going to set speed records, Tavares' skating certainly won't be the thing that holds him back from having an exemplary NHL career.

"Is he the best skater in the OHL? Maybe not," said McGuire. "He is one of the best in the OHL, right now, skating-wise. Yet is that the most significant or visible part of his game? No it's his hands and his offensive ability. There are a lot of teams that have fancy skaters that wish ugly skaters would score a goal for them, and he's not an ugly skater."
"His attitude and his disposition have been that of a leader. After practices he's in the weight room. ... We lost a big game to London and he and Michel Del Zotto and Connor Stokes were in the weight room and an hour after the game when I left, he was still pounding the weights. And when you throw in the player he is, if there's a timing of things, it just made the timing right."
-- Oshawa Generals coach Chris DePiero
DePiero referenced a goal from earlier this season against the Erie Otters, when Tavares raced from deep in the Generals' zone to create an odd-man rush that led to a goal, to show where Tavares' skating has grown.

"Michael Del Zotto got out of the (penalty) box and gets a pass, and John came from our zone, almost from the goal line, and beat everybody up ice and made it a 2-on-1," said DePiero. "I said to our assistant coach, I hope people don't question his skating. The commitment he made in the summer, his upper body and lower body, he's not the most fleet of foot guy, but once he gets moving he's not bad. I don't think he has that dynamic Stamkos speed, but bigger picture it'll be fine."

Skating wasn't the only thing Tavares said he worked on this summer. Getting stronger and raising his stamina were something he focused on to get him through what should be a long season of hockey -- a full OHL season, the ADT Canada Russia Challenge, the World Junior Championship, the Top Prospects Game, and possibly the World Championship.

"His willingness to be the player he wants to be is there," said DePiero, "and to me that supersedes anything that could be perceived as a negative. His willingness to be better every day, he's so competitive, he's got such an inner drive. He's slowly erasing that idea, that the scouts were poking holes in his game that crept in last year."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.