John Tavares already has lived quite an impressive hockey life. He was granted "exceptional player" status by the Ontario Hockey League at 15, broke one of Wayne Gretzky's junior hockey goal-scoring records at 16, was the MVP of the 2009 World Junior Championship at 17 and was the first pick of the 2009 NHL Draft at 18.
He's played in the World Championship three times and won an Olympic gold medal with Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Center - NYI
GOALS: 24 | ASST: 42 | PTS: 66
SOG: 188 | +/-: -6
But last season was the kind of first Tavares would like to avoid. The 23-year-old captain of the New York Islanders sustained a torn medial collateral ligament and a torn meniscus in his left knee at the Olympics and missed the final two months of the NHL season.
It was the first significant injury absence of Tavares' career; prior to that point he had played in 350 of 354 games in his first five NHL seasons. In fact, the last time Tavares had any significant injury was in August 2007, when he said he sustained almost the same injury at a training camp for the 2007 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup team. Tavares missed six weeks, but was ready to play when his season started with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL.
Watching hockey rather than playing it was not a fun experience for Tavares.
"It certainly wasn't a great year for some guys," Tavares said of the Islanders, who finished 14th in the Eastern Conference and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs one season after making the postseason for the first time since 2007.
However, he said watching the game gave him a new perspective on things. While the season as a whole was disappointing, he saw the seeds for something special.
"The thing you do see with us is our speed and how we can play an up-tempo style," he said. "Hopefully we get back to doing that on a consistent basis."
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There was the maturation of a number of younger players who got extra NHL time last season, among them forwards Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome and Anders Lee, as well as defenseman Calvin de Haan. Plus there's the potential for top prospect Griffin Reinhart to earn an NHL spot on defense.
Islanders general manager Garth Snow spent the summer building around that young group, adding veteran forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in free agency, and trading a draft pick for the rights to goaltender Jaroslav Halak, then signing him to a four-year contract.
"Goaltending is probably the biggest thing we've seen change," Tavares said. "We got a guy in Jaro that his numbers are in the top 10 in the last number of seasons. He's a very consistent, solid goalie who can make some big saves and steal you some games. We're looking forward to that. He's a guy that can play a lot of minutes as well. He's got some great playoff experience as well. Having a guy like that, and [backup goalie] Chad [Johnson] had a great year last year [with the Boston Bruins], so you get two veteran guys in the net like that and it's going to provide some great stability for us.
"We picked up [Kulemin and Grabovski], they play a gritty style of game, an in-your-face game. They obviously have very good skill sets. Maybe a little bit different but they seem to work well with one another. With Kule and Grabo it's going to be great to see the effectiveness they have and it adds a lot more depth up front and that's going to make us stronger."
The veteran additions plus the developing young players, as well as core team members Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey, Michael Grabner and Travis Hamonic, adds up to Tavares being on the most talented team he's been a part of in the NHL.
With all that talent, however, comes an uptick in pressure to get back to the playoffs. That's something Tavares relishes.
"It's fun," he said. "You play to win, and you play to win the Stanley Cup. That's been our goal; for a lot of us since we were kids to have that opportunity. After a great year we had during the lockout season we were really disappointed with it last year. This is a big year for us in a lot of ways. You can see Garth and management really trying to find that solution to get us into the playoffs and consistently have that. The pressure is great. You have to enjoy it. It just means there's a great opportunity ahead of you."