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JT Breaks Out

by Jesse D. Eisenberg / New York Islanders
The Islanders expect John Tavares to lead the club in scoring every season.

The former first overall draft pick is also expected to increase his point totals, sharpen his defensive game and take on a greater leadership role each year.
John Tavares #91 of the New York Islanders and team Alfredsson plays in the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game at Scotiabank Place on January 29, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario
With such lofty, yet consistently realized expectations, the need arises for a broader measuring stick with which to gauge Tavares’ development. In his third professional season, Tavares showed not only the rate at which he is becoming an elite player on the Islanders, but in the National Hockey League and in the record books.

Just six players in the NHL had more points this season than Tavares, who fell one shy of the esteemed point-per-game mark with 31 goals and 50 assists in 82 games.

“He dominated offensively,” Islanders captain Mark Streit said. “Every time he has the puck you feel like he can create something and it’s getting dangerous. It’s a big threat and other teams are worried about him.”
Tavares posted the highest point total by an Islander in 14 years (Ziggy Palffy in 1997-98), becoming the fourth player in Islanders history to score at least 73 points at age 21 or younger, alongside Islanders legends Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin.

“I’ve talked about finding consistency in my game and I think that keeps getting better – it shows that my overall game is improving,” Tavares said. “To be able to produce on a regular basis and at that high-end part of the league is a level I strive for so it’s a great accomplishment.”

Tavares also became the second-youngest Islander to reach 200 points in his career at 21 years and 260 days old, behind Trottier (21 years and 125 days).

While the point totals are nothing short of spectacular for a third-year player, Tavares’ made equally impressive strides in his defensive game this season. He’d long been the team’s top option on offense, but in 2011-12, Tavares became Head Coach Jack Capuano’s go-to player to close-out tight games.

“I think everyone looks at the offensive numbers and the offensive instincts that Johnny has, but he takes a lot of pride in his defense and his faceoffs,” Capuano said. “Not only has he won some key faceoffs in our offensive zone to start out a power play and gain puck possession, but in the defensive zone he’s won some big draws for us as well that give us the ability to get out of our own end. If you want to be an elite player in this league, you have to be able to play a 200-foot game and Johnny is one of those guys.”

A strong two-way game helped Tavares log 1,686 minutes of ice time; only 11 NHL forwards played more. He also ranked sixth in the league in faceoff wins (814) and led the team in faceoff percentage (51.3%).

“He’s a special player and he works tremendously hard on improving his game, day in and day out, on the ice and off the ice,” linemate Matt Moulson said. “He wants to win and score and help this team get to where we want to be.”

A lot of us set new career highs and contributed to the team that way – we can’t rest on that. We have to keep getting better and improving. - John Tavares
Tavares may have offered a glimpse of what’s to come during a month-long scoring outburst to start 2012. He led the league in scoring in January with nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points in 13 games, recording a point in 12-of-13 games and pointing on 62.9% of the team’s goals (22 points on 35 goals). He was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month.

“There was a time right before the All-Star Break when we felt unstoppable out there,” Tavares’ other primary winger, PA Parenteau said. “You’re scoring goals, you feel confident with the puck and that was an awesome time of year to be playing hockey.”

The month concluded with Tavares’ first-career selection to the NHL All-Star Game on Jan. 29 in Ottawa, where he scored a goal and an assist for Team Alfredsson.

“When Johnny is playing with a lot of confidence, he’s a scary player to play against,” Moulson added.

As opposing teams zeroed in on the league’s hottest scorer in the closing months of the season, the Islanders’ secondary scorers took advantage. Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo erupted for a combined 16 goals and 20 assists in the final 11 games.

“Sometimes you’re able to get a lead and the other team has to open it up and take some more chances,” Tavares said. “That’ll fee up some more space for everybody, not just my line, to et more time and space to work with.”

Already producing with the NHL leaders and historically amongst the franchise’s best, Tavares’ next seasons will be judged not on individual stats, but by the team’s positioning in the standings.

“We were definitely more in the race this year than we’ve been in my first two years here so that really was a much different feeling in our locker room and in our attitude and our approach to the game,” Tavares said. “A lot of us set new career highs and contributed to the team that way – we can’t rest on that. We have to keep getting better and improving.”

For such a transcendent player – the face of the franchise – a playoff bid will be the key to gauging Tavares’ fourth NHL season.
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