He’s a player whose vision for the game is as good – if not better than – his skill. But even for a highly-gifted player like Tavares, there’s a lot to learn at the NHL level and experience is often the best teacher.
Monday marks Tavares’ 500th NHL game, all with the Islanders. During that time he’s learned how to cope with a long season, putting the highs and lows of an 82-game season in perspective. He’s learned that it’s possible to be the most dedicated person in the locker room and take time away from the game. He’s learned how to lead.
“He’s just more vocal,” said head coach Jack Capuano, who’s coached Tavares for 429 games. “He always leads by example on and off the ice with his work ethic. He’s quiet that way, but people understand the way he works and how he carries himself. He’s become more vocal and he’s not afraid. That comes with maturity too. He’s learned a lot. Doug [Weight] was only here for a year, but Mark Streit was a pretty good captain, so you learn from those guys.”
Weight, who is one of the Islanders’ assistant coaches, captained the Islanders for Tavares’ first two seasons and took him into his home. Streit captained the Islanders for the next two and had lots of praise for his successor when asked about it the morning of Tavares’ 500th game.
“He’s grown a lot,” Streit said. “He came in as an 18-year-old, really young and raw talent. He always had a great personality and a dedication to hockey. He’s obviously unique and has a willingness to win. I’ve always known from the beginning that he’s going to be a good leader and all the great leaders lead by example.”
“The way he leads, the way he competes and wants to play great in every game, it’s great for the young guys coming along. He’s a great guy, but a humble guy. To reach 500 [at a young age] is another huge accomplishment.”
Tavares has had his share of accolades in his first seven NHL seasons. He’s a three-time All-Star, a two-time MVP finalist and an Olympic gold medalist, but one of his biggest sources of pride is his attendance record, as he’s played in 500 of a possible 529 games.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to be healthy,” Tavares said. “It didn’t take a lot of time to get to 500. One knee injury that kept me out a significant amount of time. Other than that, I’ve been able to take care of myself and be ready to play each and every night. That’s something I’ve put a lot of work into.”
“Other than that there are a lot of great moments,” Tavares said. “Mostly, when you have success as a team, the years we’ve made the playoffs, those have been so much fun. This year trying to get back towards that. Obviously first game and first goal are something you remember. Scoring my first hat trick, I’ll never forget that either. It was a great moment, but there have been a lot of great moments. Some overtime goals, a lot of fun games against the Rangers. There are a lot of things that have gone well for me in my first 500.”
Tavares hasn’t just grown as a leader over that time. He’s grown as a hockey player and a person. Streit remembers when the “knock” on Tavares was his skating, so Tavares sought out skating instructor Dawn Braid to help him improve his stride. Three years later, NHL.com’s Dan Rosen wrote a story about how Tavares had earned a reputation as one of the strongest skaters in the league.
“When he came into the league everyone was talking about his skating and now he’s one of the better skaters in the league,” Streit said. “He worked so hard, so much that now his speed and his skill and his scoring touch are unique as a top player in this league. His skating improvement shows how much he cares, how much he wants to get better as a player. That’s one thing that’s never going to stop.”
Tavares’ desire to get better is fuelled by his high internal expectations. As much as the Islanders rely on him – Capuano said things would be “a lot different” without him – those expectations are dwarfed by his own. When he entered the league, Tavares spent most of his free time thinking about the next game and analyzing himself. He could get down if he wasn’t performing to his standards. Make no mistake, hockey is still first and foremost on his mind, but he’s learned how to be more even keeled and find a balance between hockey and life.
“He was serious,” Weight said of Tavares’ disposition when he entered the league. “It’s not allowed in my house to be too serious for too long, but he was focused. He’s still focused, but he’s learned the years are so long and there are so many games and it’s a grind and there’s going to be ups and downs that you have to relax and find some other interests away from the rink and get away from the game a bit. I think he’s done that, but definitely when he was 18 it was nothing but the next opponent, what am I doing wrong, how do I get better and he wanted to put a rush on all that.”
“At a young age it’s good, but if you want to play – I’m sure he wants to play 13-1400 games – it’ll wear you out.”
For now, the 25-year-old Tavares is at 500 games. If he plays at a similar pace, he’ll hit 1,000 in his early 30’s. That’s too far to look ahead for the Islanders captain, who’s more concerned with putting his name on the Stanley Cup, so he’ll enjoy the milestone today.
“It’s something you’re proud of,” Tavares said. “It means you’re getting older, but still hopefully a long way to go and I want to build on the first 500.”