will celebrate his 21st birthday next Tuesday. While most hockey players that age are still fighting their way up the professional ranks, Tavares will be preparing for his third NHL season with the New York Islanders
"Ricky's (DiPietro) calling me a veteran and I'm just turning 21," Tavares told NHL.com. "It's hard to believe, but I'm excited for it. Every year, I want to keep improving and keep getting better and I'm trying to become one of the elite players in the League and help our team get back to where we should be and where we could be. It's a new responsibility trying to take my game to another level."
He'll have plenty of time to find that level on Long Island. On Thursday, the Islanders announced that Tavares signed a six-year contract that will keep him with the franchise through the 2017-18 season.
"I believe in this organization and this hockey team," he said when asked why he was willing to make a long-term commitment with a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2007. "The Stanley Cup is what we want, obviously sooner than later. But we've got to take it one day at a time. It's for us as a team to take the next step and make the playoffs."
Tavares has been through a lot in his first two professional seasons. In 2009-10, he carried the burden of being that year's No. 1 overall draft pick. He immediately became the Isles' No. 1 center and had 24 goals and 30 assists for a club that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Last season was loaded with ups and downs. While Tavares saw his numbers improve -- he had 29 goals and led the club with 67 points -- the Islanders struggled so badly in November that Scott Gordon
was removed as coach after 10 straight losses and replaced by Jack Capuano
. New York improved dramatically in the second half of the season, which has Tavares excited for fall.
"I remember that game in L.A. (a 5-1 loss on Nov. 13) and it was Coach Gordon's last game. It just felt like we were really lost as a group," Tavares recalled. "You put so much hard work into things and it's not paying off and you're like, 'Where are things going?' There are so many questions and you don't know how to correct them and you're trying to find answers immediately. It was tough and definitely a low point in a lot of ways. But at the same time, I think it might have been the best thing for us. Maybe losing five or six in a row would have been great and we would have learned our lesson. But I think we really started to learn how to handle adversity and we started coming really close as a group. I think we showed that the second half of the year.
"We really didn't back down from anybody, either. We started to show we weren't going to be a pushover and we weren't going to be an easy team to play against. We started to develop a bit of an identity from that. We weren't going to take any crap anymore or any abuse or any disrespect that we felt. We made sure we came out to play every night and we knew we had a talented group. Things started to change and the confidence came back. The closeness that we had made a big difference."
Tavares told NHL.com he was excited when GM Garth Snow
announced he was removing the interim tag on Capuano, who received a contract extension just days after the 2010-11 regular season concluded. Like many of his teammates, Tavares gave Snow a full endorsement when asked about retaining Capuano's services.
"I think Garth asked all the guys," Tavares said. "Me and Jack's relationship is great. I can go to him about the game and ask him and he's done a lot of video with me and helped me improve my game. We've got great assistant coaches too in Dean Chynoweth
and Scotty Allen. It's a really good mix now. They've been great with us."
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While the Islanders are still trying to find a way to get a new arena to replace the soon-to-be 40-year old Coliseum, the future of the franchise is extremely bright. The club added another big piece to its young core at the NHL Entry Draft in June, when center Ryan Strome
was selected fifth overall. Strome and Tavares are close friends and worked out together this summer.
"Just his work ethic and how professional he is … he's very competitive," Strome said of Tavares. "Just to be around that type of atmosphere with him and just learn off that, it's quite the thing to be around."
"I was thrilled," Tavares said. "All my best friends, we all work out together and we knew there was a great possibility and seeing him (get drafted by the Islanders), it was a great day. You could see how excited he was and how relieved he was. I think he was really happy to come to Long Island. He understands where we're headed and the opportunity we have here and he has. He's going to be a great player. I speak very highly because I know him and I've skated with him a little bit and see what he's been able to do at his age. He can be an elite passer in this game and really make players around him better. We're looking forward to him doing that, whether it's this season or shortly down the road."
Tavares should know, considering he's already an elite passer who makes players around him better. Matt Moulson
is a two-time 30-goal scorer skating alongside Tavares, while PA Parenteau
tallied 20 goals and 33 assists as his right wing. It was Parenteau's first full season in the NHL.
"He wants to be in a position to take the team on his back," Capuano said. "We've got some pretty good players around him coming into this season. I expect John to have another great year. His goals and his objectives are to get this team into the postseason, and hopefully we can do that."
Snow said the long-term contract "defines that John will be a leader in the locker room. He's a very big part of our young core, and he always strives to be the best he can be."
While the Isles' ultimate goal is a Stanley Cup, the first step will be ending a playoff drought that dates to their last appearance in 2007. Tavares thinks the Isles can do it.
"It's about putting it together for all 82 (games)," he said. "The best teams are the teams that find their way into the playoffs. They're always able to put losing streaks and tough losses behind them and they move forward. It's a new day. For us, it's finding that consistency. Being healthy, that will allow us to do that more. We want to be playing with stuff on the line. That's what we're striving towards."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL