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Offseason work helped Tavares become an All-Star

Friday, 01.27.2012 / 7:47 PM / 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

OTTAWA -- Around the League they're talking about John Tavares' speed, and how it is among the most important elements in his progression from a No. 1 draft pick in 2009 to a first-time NHL All-Star in 2012.

"He's picked up a step," Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf said at Media Day prior to the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game. "Playing that back-to-back against him (Monday and Tuesday before the All-Star break), you can see his game is at a different level. He's definitely picked up a step, and he's making some unbelievable plays."

Once teams play the New York Islanders, the discussion also turns to his strength on the puck, how it is the second essential part of Tavares' game that has helped him begin to fulfill the promise he had coming out of the Ontario Hockey League.

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"His strength on the puck, it's so much better," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said after a recent 3-1 win against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. "The game slows down for the special players, and it's slowing down even more for him -- which is good news for Islander fans and bad news for the rest of us in this League."

To Tavares, the conversations about his speed and the praise he's receiving about his strength on the puck are flattering, but not at all surprising.

He feels he's earned it all through his dedication and hard work in the offseason. The Islanders 21-year-old alternate captain has taken the giant leap to point-per-game All-Star player in his third NHL season largely because what he does in the summer is based off of what he learned during the previous 82-game grind.

His recent 12-game point-scoring streak and his invite to play in Sunday's All-Star Game are the rewards for that work.

"It's different now with the way the game has changed because the offseason used to be for time off, but now it's where you make your game," Tavares told NHL.com. "That's where you get better and that's where you can work on things, on the ice and off the ice.

"I always had the right attitude and always wanted to get better, but (after my rookie year) I started to really understand what I had to do specifically to improve my game and grow as a player, to figure out what it was going to take for me to reach another level," he added. "I have worked hard at it. I take a lot of pride in it – and I'm starting to see the results. So that's what makes it feel so good."

Tavares entered the break with 49 points in 48 games. His NHL-best 12-game point-scoring streak came to an end in a 3-0 loss to Toronto on Monday, but he scored the Islanders' first goal in the first period the next night against the Leafs.

Tavares had eight goals and 13 assists for 21 points over the course of his streak – during which the Islanders were 8-4-0.

"To be an All-Star, you have to train like an All-Star, prepare like an All-Star," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "With John, it starts in the summer. He's a guy that takes a lot of pride in his strength and conditioning, and that carries over. He's playing with a lot more confidence. His puck protection and his ability to make plays come with a little bit of experience, but I also think it comes with the way he prepares himself."

Islanders teammate Matt Moulson sees Tavares' offseason routine firsthand. They worked together this past summer with renowned power skating instructor Dawn Braid in Mississauga, Ont.

Moulson, Tavares’ regular left wing, is seeing the dividends of that work paying off.

"You can tell that he's such a more powerful skater and that definitely helps him when he's coming in and challenging guys," Moulson told NHL.com. "He challenges defenders and when you challenge guys in this League it opens up other things, even if it's not just on that play."

Moulson said Tavares is becoming one of the best one-on-one players in the game.

"He has that ability, like a (Pavel) Datsyuk or a (Sidney) Crosby, to beat a guy one-on-one," Moulson said. "He has the capability of making plays even when there is nothing. People are starting to realize how truly good he is."

For his part, Capuano said he never talks to Tavares about his creativity or really anything that has to do with his offensive game; he mostly discusses defense with him.

Soon enough those discussions won't be necessary either.

"A lot of his chances stem from his defensive zone play," Capuano said. "How he comes under the puck, and how he's getting puck possession and odd-man rushes, it all stems from defense and he's doing a real good job. I think that's overlooked sometimes when you see his offensive numbers.

"He's always been an offensive guy, but playing that 200-foot game, playing away from the puck, he's really improved."

Tavares said he feels his confidence grow in his all-around game virtually every time he comes back to the bench after a strong shift.

"You definitely notice it, and it's rewarding," he said. "It makes you want to get better, push yourself even more, because you see the success you have when you do push yourself."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl