John Tavares isn’t just in the hunt for Art Ross Trophy anymore – now he’s being hunted.
As of Saturday night, Tavares leads the NHL scoring race with 70 points (32 goals, 38 assists) in 67 games. With five points (two goals, three assists) in his last two games, the Islanders captain is heating up at the right time to challenge for his first league scoring title.
Already considered a league superstar, it’s no surprise that Tavares is competing for the Art Ross Trophy for the league’s top scorer. It’s more surprising that a player of his caliber hasn’t done it already.
“He’s been recognized and in consideration for the MVP, but making us one of the best teams in the league this year, he definitely deserved to be recognized,” teammate Frans Nielsen said.
On the surface, the statistics betray Tavares’ talent. He scored 81 points for his highest career total three years ago, but has posted higher point-per-game averages in each of the last two seasons. However, his MVP nomination came in a lockout-shortened 2012-13 and last year, he was scoring at a career pace (66 points in 59 games) before his season was cut short by injury during the Olympics.
To put Tavares’ recent seasons in perspective, he has scored over a point-per-game since the start of the 2011-12 season, netting 264 points in 256 games. That’s good enough for fifth in the NHL.
He has 115 goals over that span – also top 10 in the NHL – which is indicative of Tavares’ dynamic talent. Known as a highly-skilled playmaker, Tavares is at his best stickhandling down low, working the puck from off the goalline, or playing keep away in front of the net. His philosophy is clear: the closer, the better.
“He gets to those hard areas of the ice, he’s not a perimeter guy,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “If you watch him play, he’s not one of those guys that’s going to score coming down the wing with a shot. He does the right things and he knows where to go because of his hockey sense and he’s got the grit and determination to get to those hard areas.”
His hands speak for themselves, as Florida Panthers goalie Dan Ellis found out Saturday night. Tavares – skating in on a breakaway from the blueline – showed no mercy, making at least six moves and headfakes before ultimately deciding to roof a backhander.
Tavares doesn’t have a go-to move like Nielsen’s patented backhand, but the Islanders captain works on his stickhandling constantly, often lining up three pucks in a triangle, dragging a fourth puck around his obstacle course.
“It’s incredible to see how hard he works in practice,” Nielsen said. “How he lifts, eats, everything to become better. When you add that to his talent, you get one of the best players in the world.”
The preparation starts off the ice. Tavares’ decisions are all based on one thing – winning the Stanley Cup. He knows his body and values rest. He understands that there is such a thing as too much hockey, which is why he leaves it all on the ice and the weight room, before relaxing at home.
When the team is having an off day, he steps in and gets the job done. - Frans Nielsen
“It’s a lifestyle,” Tavares said. “I love to play this game. I’m very committed. When I feel most ready to play, it’s when I’ve done everything I possibly could to be in the best position to have success.”
Ryan Strome, Tavares’ roommate, says there aren’t many “cheat days” living with Tavares, who’s favorite “cheat meal” is chicken parmesan. Most Long Islanders just call that dinner.
His dedication can’t be taught, but neither can his hockey sense. Tavares set up the Islanders’ second goal Thursday, feeding Nick Leddy at the point before Anders Lee tipped the puck past Pekka Rinne. The catch was that he didn’t even see Leddy. Watch the replay and he glances the complete opposite direction, but just knows where everyone is – or should be – on the ice.
“I just had a feeling he was there, knowing the way we wanted to plan our breakout into the zone,” Tavares said.
That hockey sense allows Tavares to anticipate the next play on the ice, whether he has the puck or doesn’t. Take his goal against the New York Rangers on Feb. 16. Cam Talbot made a harmless looking clear around the boards, but Tavares anticipated the goalie’s move, met the puck at the half-wall and snapped it into the open net. It looks fluky, but Capuano said it’s almost as if the puck follows Tavares.
“Some of it you just can’t teach,” Nielsen added.
If he does win the scoring title on Apr. 11, there are a handful of extraordinary games that will stand out. Tavares scored both goals in a 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Jan. 2, as well as the game-tying goal and OT winner – the “Yes! Yes! Yes!” goal – against the New Jersey Devils a week later. It’s not that he had multi-goal games, but it’s the magnitude of when he scores, too.
“When the team is having an off day, he steps in and gets the job done,” Nielsen said. “It’s been fun watching him this year, leading our team. You need that kind of player if you want to win.”
Tavares said it would be a great honor to win the scoring title, but he’s not focusing on it over a division, or conference title.
“You don't focus on it, you just try to contribute,” Tavares said. “I’m counted on to put the puck in the net. I just create opportunities. If something like that happens, obviously you have to have team success. It would be a great honor, but I’m just trying to play game to game and worry about what I can control.”
For the leader of the pack, it’s about staying the course. No sense in worrying about the guys chasing.