After years of anticipation that he’d be the NHL’s next big superstar and months of buildup after the New York Islanders chose him No. 1 in the 2009 Entry Draft, John Tavares finally made his NHL debut Wednesday night in Edmonton.
Tavares won 10 of 16 faceoffs and earned 22 minutes, 50 seconds’ worth of ice time during his Isles’ 3-2, preseason loss to the Oilers at Rexall Place.
"It was nice to get it behind me," Tavares, the almost 19-year-old (his birthday is Sunday) from Oakville, Ont., told NHL.com early Thursday afternoon at Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome.
"But it was exciting. It makes me want to play more," Tavares said. "I’m pumped for the next one. I want to keep improving -- have a better game the next time out, and the one after that, and be as ready as possible for our season opener (Oct. 3 vs. Pittsburgh)."
Working on a line with Doug Weight and Sean Bergenheim, Tavares took 26 shifts on Wednesday night against the Oilers, with one shot on net, one blocked shot, a takeaway, two giveaways and a minus-1 rating.
Tavares, in the left circle, was stopped by Devan Dubnyk early in the first period on a Weight setup, and was stationed in front of Dubnyk when Bruno Gervais opened the scoring with a right-point shot just seconds later.
The six-foot, 195-pound center was not expected to play Thursday night as the Isles squared off against the host Calgary Flames.
"I thought I had a pretty good start to (Wednesday’s) game, playing well, doing all the little things right, creating some opportunities," said Tavares in reflection.
"I think all the travel caught up with a lot of us in the second and into the third period (the Isles, who set up camp in Saskatoon, played their pre-season opener in Terrace, B.C., before heading to Edmonton). There’s still lots to learn, but a lot of things to build off of."
Tavares, the former Canadian major junior player of the year, is seen by many — perhaps unfairly — as the saviour of the Islanders franchise.
He’s been praised for his skill, composure, ability, awareness, one-on-one savvy, and towering hockey IQ while averaging 119 points over his final three seasons with Oshawa and London of the Ontario Hockey League.
"If he scores 50 goals and adds 50 assists this year, that would be a great start for him," joked Islanders coach Scott Gordon earlier this week in Terrace.
"Quite honestly, just like the rest of our younger players, we want him to grow and develop through the course of the year. The first half, for him, is probably going to be about getting acclimated to the pro game and getting familiar with our system of play."
Weight, a veteran NHL forward who’s played with six teams, is duly impressed.
"Obviously, anyone picked that high has a tremendous amount of talent. He’s shown that. He has a great set of hands and a mind for the game," said the 38-year-old from Detroit during the first couple of days of Isles training camp. "There’s a reason he’s been highly touted for as long as he’s been."
"It makes me want to play more. I’m pumped for the next one. I want to keep improving — have a better game the next time out, and the one after that, and be as ready as possible for our season opener."
-- John Tavares
The scrutiny will be constant, and there will be expectations for Tavares to both make an immediate impact and lead the long-mediocre Islanders out of the NHL wilderness.
But Tavares has already been dealing with heightened expectations for years — and delivered. He played in the OHL as a 15-year-old, a rare feat in itself, tallying 77 points that season with Oshawa. He also eclipsed Peter Lee’s 33-year-old record for career OHL goals (214), finishing with 215 in 247 games.
Tavares also co-owns the Canadian record for career goals at the World Junior Championship along with Eric Lindros and Jeff Carter, tallying 12 over the past two years in leading his country to its fourth and fifth consecutive gold medals.
"I’ve learned over the years in junior, and growing up, about being a high-profile guy, and getting a lot of attention," Tavares told NHL.com Thursday. "Yeah, it’s not always the easiest position, but I don’t mind handling it, stepping up in the pressure situations or being counted on for a lot of things.
"I don’t mind it, but obviously it’s a team game, and all my teammates and the rest of the staff are just as important as I am."
Weight, embarking on his 21st NHL season, has taken on a mentorship role with Tavares, rooming with him on the road in training camp.
"He’s been awesome. He’s been really helpful ever since I was drafted, preparing me for training camp, and just getting all the little things done," Tavares said.
"In training camp, we’ve been having a good time, and he’s helped me relax. We’ve developed a very good relationship. I just have to worry about playing, and being myself.
"Doug and the guys have made me feel comfortable, made me feel part of the team. It’s really made everything that much easier."