NEW YORK --
The line snaked through the NHL Powered by Reebok store in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday and it wound up not far from the Sixth Avenue entrance. Roughly 200 fans filled the store so they could meet, greet and get an autograph from New York Islanders rookie John Tavares
"Sir," one fan who had to be twice the 19-year-old's age said to the star center upon reaching his table, "I'm just so glad the team picked you."
A legion of loyal Islander fans feels the same way.
The career that many prognosticators and NHL fans waited breathlessly for is now two months old and so far Tavares has been nothing short of a hit in the NHL and in particular out on Long Island.
The Calder Trophy candidate has breathed new life into the Islanders, making them relevant again in a saturated sports market.
The Islanders have still lost 17 of its first 27 games, including seven in either overtime or the shootout, but they are realistic to think the playoffs are an option this season.
There was even a report in the New York Post over the weekend that owner Charles Wang has given GM Garth Snow permission to add payroll for a playoff run. The Isles operate close to the salary-cap floor.
"We've given ourselves a real chance," Tavares told NHL.com Tuesday from the store.
The Islanders recent success (9-6-2 in the last 17 games) has coincided with what appears to be Tavares figuring out the NHL game.
He had 3 goals, 4 assists and a minus-6 rating through 10 games and the Isles managed just one win and seven points (1-4-5). He has 7 goals, 7 assists and a plus-5 rating in the last 17 games and the Islanders have surged.
They entered Tuesday 11th in the East with 27 points, which was only one shy of eighth. Tavares leads the team and all NHL rookies with 10 goals and 21 points. He's also tops among first-year players with 74 shots.
"I think we learned a lot from the beginning of the season," Tavares said. "It's better to have your worst stretch at the beginning and to finish your best at the end. It's not always the easiest thing, but I think we've got a really good bunch of guys and we've come together really well. It made it easier to come over that as a team."
Beyond his stats and the team's success, Tavares is already turning into one of the leaders on the team, which is precisely what Snow and coach Scott Gordon were hoping would happen considering the exposure they knew Tavares was going to get.
"It's better to have your worst stretch at the beginning and to finish your best at the end. It's not always the easiest thing, but I think we've got a really good bunch of guys and we've come together really well. It made it easier to come over that as a team." - John Tavares
"From what I've seen, even from the first game, he's looked pretty comfortable out there," Penguins star Sidney Crosby, himself an extremely hyped former No. 1 pick, said of Tavares after the Islanders' star scored the game-winning goal against the Penguins in a 3-2 victory last Friday. "It's a confidence thing. You have to believe the things you do will work."
Tavares has always believed, even when he was in the OHL, that his skills would translate. He just had to get used to playing against men instead of boys, an adjustment he seems to have already conquered in just two months.
"Overall with the pace and getting up to the skill level wasn't too bad for me; I thought I adjusted to that pretty quickly, but in the preseason I was really adjusting to the strength and size of guys and learning how to use my body and how to protect the puck, which has always been one of my best attributes being down low and working in the corners," Tavares said. "Now it's finally come along. It has really has made me feel comfortable to know I could use my strength out there to protect the puck and not be worried about being pushed around. Overall that was the thing that was the most challenging for me but it's nice that I've made that adjustment."
Tavares is winning 48.3 percent of his faceoffs (186 of 395), which isn't bad for a rookie who is his team's No. 1 center. He's 55.0 percent at home when he has the advantage, but just 43.0 percent on the road.
"Our assistant coach, Scott Allen, is on all of our centerman and our wingers even about taking faceoffs and he's been big with me watching video of guys I will face a lot," Tavares said. "Faceoffs are very important. It's something I have been proud of and tried hard at and always wanted to be good at. I thought I was good at it in junior and I think I'm doing OK now."
He had 200 or so people telling him he was better than just OK on Tuesday. They weren't wrong.
"He's the most talented player I've ever played with," Tavares' linemate and roommate, Matt Moulson
, told the Boston Globe after the Islanders dispatched the Bruins, 4-1, on Nov. 16. "He's been great every game."
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer