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Tavares emerging as a star on Long Island

by Dave Lozo / New York Islanders

Statistically speaking, John Tavares had one of the better games of his career against the Washington Capitals on March 13, 2012.

The 21-year-old was on the ice for all four goals scored by the New York Islanders that night. He scored twice, assisted on another and delivered a shootout goal while winning 11 of 17 faceoffs and holding his own against NHL mega-star Alex Ovechkin at Nassau Coliseum.

Tavares played 23:07 and wasn't on the ice for a single goal against.

It was the sixth time during the 2011-12 season Tavares had at least three points in a game – he had four points in consecutive games in early October. Only Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin (9), who won the Art Ross Trophy, Steven Stamkos (9) of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Claude Giroux (11) of the Philadelphia Flyers, Jason Spezza (7) of the Ottawa Senators and Ilya Kovalchuk (9) of the New Jersey Devils had more games last season with at least three points.

Tavares finished last season tied for seventh in points with James Neal of the Penguins and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, two of the bigger names in the League. He was one of three players, along with Malkin and Spezza, with at least 30 goals and 50 assists.

By any measure, it was a breakout season for the first pick in the 2009 Draft. Tavares is one of the rare players to make the immediate jump to the NHL in his draft year. As far as players who fit that bill since 2005, Tavares' 202 points in his first three seasons trail only the first three seasons of Crosby, Stamkos and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Is it fair to say that right now, Tavares is one of the best players in the NHL?

"I do, and it's not just because he's my linemate," Brad Boyes, who signed with the Islanders as a free agent in July, told "To be honest, I think he's one of the best players just in terms of an overall skill set. When you look at points, that's one thing -- a lot of times, that's what people attribute it to, how many points you get. But I think it's the way you get them. That's the biggest thing."

Tavares enters play Tuesday night tied for third in scoring with 25 points in 19 games. He's young, good-looking, extremely talented and plays in the New York metropolitan area, the biggest media market in the world. Yet "John Tavares" is far from a household name in the Big Apple, as the Islanders lack the same following as the Rangers, an Original Six franchise.

It's one thing for teammates to sing the praises of Tavares, but his opponents and observers are well aware of his recent emergence as one of the game's elite players.

A slot machine

John Carlson of the Washington Capitals is one of the budding young defensemen in the NHL. Still only 23, Carlson has a fairly good chance to represent the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Carlson assumed a role as one of the Caps' top-two blueliners last season, and he had a firsthand look at Tavares during the aforementioned game on Long Island. He was on the ice for both of Tavares' goals and wasn't able to prevent a pass by Tavares on a power-play goal that led to a secondary assist.

Carlson goes against Stamkos and the Lightning six times a season and usually draws the assignment of trying to stop Crosby when the Caps face the Penguins. Yet Carlson says Tavares presents a special challenge when the two are on the ice together.

"All those guys have different skill sets that are hard in their own respect, but I think he's one of the most, if not the, deadliest guy in the slot," Carlson, who was also teammates with Tavares for part of a season with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, told "He's got an amazing shot and he's really good at battling down low and finding pucks in people's skates. He can make plays too. He's a passer. You can't always just take away the shot like you can with some guys or else is he's going to beat you. It's definitely not easy."

Asked how Tavares compares to Crosby, Carlson said, "I think he's got a little bit better of a shot. A Crosby shot, don't get me wrong, it's amazing. I think [Tavares] is one of the best if you put him in the slot. I'd take him over anyone."

"This year, he's just really come into his own," said Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador, who watched Tavares post five goals and two assists in three games against the New Jersey this season -- one of the goals came when he outmuscled Salvador before scoring on a breakaway. "You can see the confidence growing in him. It's tough to start labeling guys, but he's one of those players that can change the game."

Tavares' offensive numbers are on the rise – over the past two seasons, he's fourth in points with 101 in 98 games – but as is the case with nearly all young, gifted scorers, the question usually is about his play without the puck, his play in his own zone.

"I think he's got a little bit better of a shot [than Sidney Crosby]. A Crosby shot, don't get me wrong, it's amazing. I think [Tavares] is one of the best if you put him in the slot. I'd take him over anyone." - Capitals defenseman John Carlson

Plus/minus isn't the greatest barometer for overall, two-way play, but for his career, Tavares is a minus-41, and it's something critics mention when discussing his game. But Tavares compiled most of that number during his first two seasons in the League when he was a combined minus-31.

Throw in the fact that Tavares has been on the ice for a whopping 26 empty-net goals in his short career – a product of the Islanders' losing and coach Jack Capuano's penchant for pulling the goaltender far earlier than most coaches – and his plus/minus looks more like a beauty mark than a blemish.

Capuano has coached Tavares since November 2010 and said he has seen his star center's defensive game grow by leaps and bounds thanks to a mix of hard work and an understanding that he shouldn't force himself to take on too much of the burden of winning.

"He's gone through that past," Capuano said. "When Johnny gets away from his game a little bit, he tends to turn some pucks over because he tries to do too much. But he understands how he's going to help the team and how he's going to be successful, so I don't really worry about him at that point.

"For me, it's always been one thing – how can I teach and how can I help a guy. From an offensive standpoint, Johnny does what Johnny does best. I'm just trying to help him away from the puck and make him better. A lot of his offensive chances stem from his defensive play. In my couple years here, that's what we've tried to do. He's accepted that and he's working harder in the d-zone and in all areas without the puck, and he's having success."

In a game against the Rangers on Feb. 7, his defensive mindset and willingness to do the little things were on display during a 90-second shift in overtime. He won two faceoffs, generated a few scoring chances and nearly won the game with a rebound chance from near the net.

But he was also mindful in his own zone, placing himself perfectly between two Rangers in prime scoring areas to deny any sniff of a scoring chance.

"I think just my overall experience of playing in the League and knowing how important it is to be good on that side of the puck, I think I've learned a lot the last few seasons how that generates a lot more offense for myself as well," Tavares said. "That's something I've taken a lot of pride in and I've learned a lot from the coaching staff here and at the world championships. I think it's come a long way, but I think it still has a long ways to go."

Out on an Island

As wonderful as that February night on Long Island was for Tavares, it came in front of 11,488 people, nearly 5,000 below capacity at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders finished either 29th or 30th in attendance in Tavares' first three seasons and are in the same area in the early going this season.

The contest also didn't take place on national television -- but that's nothing unusual for Islanders games. In Tavares' three-plus seasons, the Islanders have never appeared on NBC. They have played on TSN seven times and NBCSN seven times, with an eighth game scheduled for Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins.

The networks aren't to blame for that, as the Islanders haven't reached the postseason since 2007 and haven't finished above 13th place in the Eastern Conference the past five seasons. The more successful the team, the more likely it is to receive the national spotlight on a more regular basis.

The most important facet of that game against the Capitals? The Islanders blew a 4-1 lead that night and lost 5-4 in a shootout. Two weeks later, they were mathematically eliminated from the postseason for a fifth straight season.

That has all transpired to keep Tavares from becoming a household name, despite playing in New York and the media requests that flood the Islanders' public relations department when they head to visiting cities. There's no true way to gauge a hockey player's popularity in North America, but jersey sales of Tavares on are one indicator of a player's appeal with fans.

In January 2013, Tavares' jersey was the 43rd most-popular jersey sold through the site. It was one spot behind a retired player – future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom – and one spot ahead of Tim Thomas, who decided against playing this season for the Bruins and was traded, coincidentally, to the Islanders in early January.

TSN analyst and former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button, who has watched Tavares since his days in the OHL with Oshawa Generals, doesn't understand why more people aren't paying attention to one of the best players in the League.

"His popularity should be far greater than that," Button said. "Young kids that are watching; they should be watching John Tavares. They should be watching the things he does to help his team, to will his team. It's one of the things that drives me crazy with the people in Canada who say, 'Why would he want to play on Long Island? Why wouldn't he want to come to Toronto?'

"I say players want to dig into an organization. Why do you think everyone wants to play in Canada? That's the same thing when Joe Thornton says he wants to stay in San Jose. To me, what John Tavares says is, 'I'm here, I'm a New York Islander, and I'm here to make this team better.' "

He'll have plenty of opportunities to try -- Tavares is in the first year of a six-year contract that will keep him with the Islanders through the 2017-18 season.

Tavares spent almost all of his first three seasons with Matt Moulson on his left wing and PA Parenteau on his right. That changed this season, with Parenteau leaving as a free agent and signing a four-year, $16 million contract with the Colorado Avalanche. Before his two seasons with the Islanders that led to his big payday, Parenteau's biggest contract since he was a ninth-round pick in 2001 was one year for $500,000.

Moulson has reaped the benefits of playing alongside Tavares, both on the scoresheet and financially. He has 97 goals in his previous three seasons and has 10 goals in 19 games this season. After a 30-goal season in 2009-10, he signed a one-year, $2.45 million in July 2010. Six months later, and on his way to a 31-goal season, he signed a three-year, $9.45 million extension.

Those are pretty amazing numbers for a 2003 ninth-round pick who couldn't find a spot with the Los Angeles Kings in two prior seasons and was without a team before the Islanders gave him a contract in the summer of 2009.

Moulson used one word to describe what it's been like to be Tavares' right-hand man on Long Island.

"Fortunate," Moulson told "It's fortunate we click well together and he still likes me. I'm glad he didn't boot me off.

"I think he's one of the best players in the world right now. I think he's shown that and continues to work on his game and continues to get better. Maybe he doesn't get the limelight some other people get, but I know him as a person and a player pretty well, and I think he's one of the best."

With Parenteau gone, the Islanders needed to fill the void at right wing. They turned to Boyes, a first-round pick in the 2000 NHL Draft who has had a cavalcade of offensive woes since scoring 76 goals over two seasons with the St. Louis Blues in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

Boyes' numbers declined sharply over the years, and he hit rock-bottom with the Buffalo Sabres last season when he had just eight goals and 15 assists in 65 games. The 30-year-old doesn't pretend the entire League was knocking down his door this summer, but when he chose the Islanders, one of the biggest reasons was the chance he could play on a line with Tavares, something that came to fruition after just a couple of weeks.

"I've played with some good ones -- Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk – those guys are potential Hall of Famers," Boyes said. "Johnny's still young. But the biggest thing I've seen from him that I haven't seen from any other guys is just his focus, his commitment, his drive.

"I think being on a team that's struggled the last few years since he's been here, at the bottom end, you don't get that recognition. I think that's part of the cloud, because of the team's success, it definitely overshadows individual guys."

"Young kids that are watching; they should be watching John Tavares. They should be watching the things he does to help his team, to will his team." - Former Flames FM Craig Button

As you'd expect, Tavares doesn't care if he has a billboard in Times Square or if he gets a million-dollar endorsement deal. He just wants to get better every day, something he's been quietly accomplishing for more than three years, and more victories, not just big stat lines in disappointing losses.

"I don't try to really worry about it," Tavares said. "I try to strive to be the best player that I can be and most nights, I play against the best players in the League and in the world and I try to raise my game to that level. So that's what I'm always striving for."

At the end of the 2010-11 season, Button said if he could do the 2009 NHL Draft again, he would take Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene first, Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman second, with Tavares falling to the No. 3 spot.

If Button could re-draft the entire League today, he'd have an extremely short list of players he'd take in front of Tavares.

"Not very many. Single digits," Button said. "Who would you really take ahead of him? You can make argument for Stamkos, Crosby, Malkin, Erik Karlsson. I don't know where it goes from there.

"He has become an elite player, a brilliant player. Every night he plays, he is doing something to make a difference for the Islanders."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Author: Dave Lozo | Staff Writer

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