OTTAWA - John Tavares once viewed a fourth year of major junior hockey as a boring prospect.
The Oshawa Generals forward watched his peers go into the NHL after spending far less time in the Canadian Hockey League than him.
Tavares entered the Ontario Hockey League at 14 under an exceptional player clause. His 18th birthday five days too late for the 2008 NHL entry draft meant it would be a long wait for his first NHL training camp.
His former agent once asked the NHL and the Players' Association to consider creating their own exception player clause, so Tavares could be drafted in 2008.
After scoring 72 goals in the OHL at the age of 16, the concern was that Tavares had already accomplished everything he could in junior hockey.
Would he get tired of the same routine and frustrated that he hadn't been able to attend an NHL training camp yet? Would his game flatline, thus affecting his draft stock for 2009?
Canadian junior hockey team head coach Pat Quinn wondered that aloud at the start of the Canadian team's selection camp.
But Tavares has found sources of motivation this season. One of them is winning another gold medal at the 2009 world junior hockey championship to go with the one from 2008.
Tavares leads this year's tournament in goal-scoring with eight in four games heading into the medal round.
"It's just self-motivation and just being a competitive guy," Tavares said Thursday. "I wanted to become better and improve and be counted on for that leadership and be a guy that can produce, or a guy you look at in the NHL like Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic.
"Guys you look and say 'that guy is a hockey player at all levels' and show people that's what I want to be."
He's developed the defensive and leadership sides of his game with the Canadian team in mind. Tavares also wants an OHL title and a Memorial Cup before he's done.
The proximity of the NHL draft in June also makes his graduation to that league seem much closer than it did last season.
"When you go through a season scoring 72 goals, (the season after) is boring," Canadian teammate P.K. Subban said. "I don't care who you are.
"This year, it's an opportunity for him to take that next step in his career and he's relishing that. He's excited to play now and I think that's the difference."
Most of Tavares's goals in the world junior tournament have come in crucial situations, when Canada needed to take control of the game - or, in the case of Wednesday's win over the U.S., spark a comeback.
Even his empty-netter to complete the hat trick Wednesday was impressive both in easing the tension for his team and the style in which he scored it. It wasn't the garden-variety long shot from the other end of the ice.
Tavares carried the puck with one hand on his stick, holding off an American defender with the other, and swept the puck with one hand.
On his second goal of the night, which Quinn labelled "a big-time goal", Tavares deked a sprawling U.S. defenceman and roofed the puck.
The six-foot, 200-pound centre scores often from the corner of the net, either taking the puck there himself or sneaking in the back door to receive the pass. Five of his goals have come on the power play because that extra space and time make him even more dangerous around the goal crease.
"On that off-side, he finds a way to peel his way in," Quinn observed. "He doesn't have blinding speed, but he has that change of pace and body motions that trick defencemen. They get cautious around him.
"He gets the puck into good positions. He hides it and then he'll bring it into that scoring position real quick. He's got a great release."
In the absence of an NHL camp, this world junior tournament is Tavares's best opportunity to prove how close he is to playing in that league.
He's getting measured against the planet's best 19-year-olds, some of whom are already in the NHL or play in minor pro leagues.
Because they're playing in the same tournament, scouts can compare Tavares's potential to that of Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman, who is Tavares's rival to go No. 1 in the draft.
"To be part of this and have good success gives you good confidence," Tavares said. "I want to prepare myself the best I can for (the NHL draft in) June and my first camp."
Canada (4-0) reaped the benefit of earning the bye to Saturday's semifinal round by getting a day off from the ice Thursday.
They await the winner of Friday's quarter-final between Russia and the Czech Republic (7:30 ET).
Sweden, also 4-0, will meet the winner of the U.S.-Slovakia quarter-final Friday (3:30 ET).
Lethbridge Hurricanes winger Zach Boychuk is day-to-day, according to Quinn. U.S. defenceman Teddy Ruth hammered Boychuk into the end boards in the third period. Boychuk skated to the bench favouring his ankle, although he played another shift.
"We'll have a couple days to have treatments on it," Quinn said. "Apparently it's not as painful as it was originally. We're optimistic."
Quinn has yet to decide if stick with Spokane's Dustin Tokarski in net again Saturday, or switch to Chet Pickard of the Tri-City Americans.
"I've been trying to have a moment's peace," Quinn said. "We haven't come to any firm decisions. We'll make that call late tomorrow after we run through a practice and do more thinking about our team play."
Tokarski had a shaky first period against the U.S., but made game-saving stops late in the second and third periods.