Standing in front of the blue Islanders backdrop in the Nassau Coliseum media room, John Tavares fielded questions from the scrum of reporters surrounding him. Topics for his season-ending availability ranged from personal health, the team’s performance, the emergence of young stars and his thoughts on the captaincy.
What the media didn’t ask Tavares about – something that those who’ve covered the Islanders for the last five years now take for granted – is his continued progression as a truly elite talent and the career-year he was on track to have. Tavares was second in the NHL in scoring prior to a season-ending MCL tear during the Sochi Olympic quarter-finals.
The Isles captain finished the year with 66 points (24 goals, 42 assists) in 59 games. Despite watching from the press box for the team’s final 23 games, Tavares was a top-30 scorer in the NHL and scored above a point-per-game clip (1.12 – fourth in the league) for the first time in his professional career.
“I felt like I was making some really good progress in my overall game,” Tavares said after the scrum disseminated. “Not just offensively either. This was the best year I felt away from the puck, defending and doing a lot of those things in my game.”
Considering the impact he has on a nightly basis, it’s hard to believe this was Tavares’ first point-per-game season – he finished one point off the pace in each of the last two seasons. If he’s not putting up a five-spot, he’s at least creating space and occupying the opposing team’s top defense pairing. Tavares was nominated for a Hart Trophy last season with 47 points (28 goals, 19 assists) in 48 games and compared to his scoring output this year, he scored 19 more points in just 11 more games.
“He’s a top-five player in the world,” Kyle Okposo said. “He’s got so much skill and so much drive. That’s a rare mix, when you have a guy that talented that works harder than anybody else. That’s a big reason why he’s so successful. To watch him where he is now from year one when he came in the league, it’s night and day.”
Tavares has improved his game every season he’s proudly called Long Island home. Two years ago he scored 81 points (30 goals, 51 assists) in 82 games before nearly scoring as many goals in half the time during the lockout-shortened season. Three seasons ago he scored 67 points (29 goals, 38 assists) in 79 games. Tavares hit the same mark this season in 20 fewer games.
If he had played a full 82-game schedule this season at the same pace, he would have finished second in league scoring behind Sidney Crosby; “91” was on pace for 91.
The foundation of Tavares’ elite talent is his hockey IQ, playmaking ability and world-class hands, but the 2009 first-overall pick’s season-to-season progression from top-pick to top-player stems from a relentless work ethic. Even in his “down time” during rehab, after putting in the hours at the gym, the 23-year-old could be found in the Coliseum hallways stick-handling with his headphones plugged in.
“He’s a guy who comes to the rink every day and works extremely hard,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “It doesn’t surprise me that every year he gets better because he takes so much pride in the offseason and how he trains. He brings it every single day.”
The superstar identifies areas for improvement and targets them every summer, never letting complacency or ego get in the way. He continues to work on his skating – a staple of his summer programs – but this summer he wants to become more elusive, especially in the wake of his season-ending injury. Cutting down on the number of big hits he takes cuts down on the risk of injury.
“For me personally, I want to try to avoid extreme physical contact,” he said. “This season caused some bumps and bruises from a lot of hits I’ve taken. You just have to be more aware on the ice.”
Tavares hasn’t been injury-prone in his five-year NHL career. He played all but three games in his first four seasons with the Islanders and owns the franchise’s fifth-longest ironman streak (246 games). He does not play on the perimeter either; Tavares drives to the slot, digs around the goal line and doesn’t shy away from anyone.
“I’ve been through the process of seeing the results and it becomes addictive,” Tavares said. “You’ll do whatever it takes to get to the next level at your game.”
Tavares is a born-winner and missing the playoffs this season does not sit well. He’s won gold medals in the Olympics, World Juniors (twice) and Switzerland’s Spengler Cup. As the Islanders captain, he takes the losing personally, but also shoulders the responsibility of righting the ship, rallying his players for next season and improving the hockey club.
"It’s just some things that obviously went wrong for us this year and that’s on us as players,” he said. “But we’ve proven [we can win], we proved last year we can get there. We need to do it over an 82-game season but we’ve shown we have that capability."
He wants the Islanders to be harder to play against – especially at home. He said he thought the team backed off and lost confidence in their game, even when they were leading. But, as the captain, he has to push the right buttons to get the most out of his teammates.
“I wouldn’t say [being captain] is tougher in terms of the disappointment and the frustration,” Tavares said. “As a captain you want to be positive. I don’t think your teammates want to hear you screaming in their face. I don’t think that’s the right way to approach things.”
The approach now shifts back to Ontario, where he’ll work out with Ryan Strome, Casey Cizikas and Kevin Czuczman. Tavares will ask a lot of his teammates and workout partners this summer, but even more of himself. That is the Tavares way to approach things.
“[His work ethic] is the reason he has the C sewn on his jersey,” Okposo said. “When your captain is working as hard as he does, everybody follows. You see one of the best players in the world work that hard, it’s infectious.”
Tavares is nearly ready to begin skating again, but after such a long absence, he has to rebuild his strength in all the areas affected by his time off. His injury shouldn’t skew his off-season training regiment, meaning it’ll be another intense, focused and productive summer.
When he returns in the fall, Tavares should pick up right where he left off, on pace for another point-per-game season, improving on the career-year that was taken from him.