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Tavares going through some rookie growing pains

by John Kreiser
For the first two months of his first NHL season, John Tavares made it look easy. As the No. 1 pick in the Entry Draft last June, the New York Islanders expected the 19-year-old to score -- but 15 goals in his first 31 games was more than they had a right to expect.

And, as it turned out, a pace he couldn't come close to maintaining.

Tavares is in the first prolonged slump of his brief NHL career -- if not of his entire time in hockey. Tavares enters the Isles' game at Colorado Wednesday with 1 goal and 2 points in his last 12 games. Not coincidentally, the Islanders have struggled to score during that span -- and their power-play production, which includes eight goals by Tavares, has almost dried up.

Though he knows he's been struggling, Tavares is determined that the slump will end -- soon.

"I've been though things like this before, where nothing comes easy and I'm not making the plays I'm used to making," he said recently. "I have to keep plugging away, keep enjoying the game, making sure I'm coming out with a lot of energy, just believe in myself. I've been able to do a lot of things in my career so far.

"I'm 19-years-old, and I've already done a lot, and I can do a lot more."

Tavares' coach, Scott Gordon, prefers to see the glass as half-full (16 goals in his star rookie's first half-season in the NHL) rather than half-empty. Slump or no slump, he's been impressed by what Tavares has accomplished in the first three months of his NHL career.

"With John, for him to get 16 goals in the first half of his rookie year, obviously we're excited about that," he said. "With a first-round pick, 19-year-old kid, you don't know what to expect. We saw (Tampa Bay's Steve) Stamkos (the No. 1 pick in 2008) and his struggles in the first half of the year, and John has been able to come in and make some contributions."

Despite his slump, Tavares still leads all rookies in goals and points (28). He has shown exceptional hands (his swat-the-puck-out-of-the-air goal in Carolina quickly became an Internet highlight), and he has the goal-scorer's knack of materializing in the right place at the right time. But as he's finding out, the NHL isn't the Ontario Hockey League, where he set scoring records before being drafted.

"I was hoping it wouldn't have to happen, but you think you know that with the long schedule -- my first experience with the NHL," he said of his slump. "Sometimes you go through periods when it's just not going in for you. It's just not connecting the way it was. I don't think I'm playing horribly, but I think offensively, things haven't been coming the way it had.

"For myself, I always think 'just simplify the game' and make it easy on myself instead of trying to do too much and putting too much pressure on myself -- work with my teammates and get to the front of the net because that's where most goals are scored. Do well in other areas and make sure you're not a liability when you're out there if you're not producing like the way I was. I just want to focus on those things, and I know it's going to come back. I believe in it and I work for it."

Teammate Kyle Okposo, the Isles' first-round pick in 2006 and a sometimes linemate this season, has no doubt that Tavares will rebound.

"He's doing great," Okposo told when asked about Tavares. "He's learning the game -- not that he didn't know it before. He's a great player; he's got great skills. He's young -- he's 19 years old. It's a pretty big grind. He's going to come along just fine.

"It's definitely something to get used to. Everybody, especially in their rookie year, has to get used to the travel. You have to really prepare yourself mentally to play every night."

Ah yes, the grind. It's something that all first-year NHL players have to get used to -- the traveling, the games, and, in Tavares' case, the pressure that comes with being a youngster who's expected to help turn around a one-legendary franchise that has fallen on hard times.

Tavares said he was prepared for the grind.

"I knew that coming into the season, with the people I talked to in preparing for the NHL. You have to prepare yourself for these things," he said. "I've done the best I could to get ready for it. Slumps happen, when things aren't coming as easy. It's a long year, and sometimes mentally it can be a little bit harder. That's when you've got to dig down deeper and push through it -- simplify everything, get as much rest as you can. That's one thing I've tried to do; when I'm not at the rink, just enjoy my time, enjoy New York and all the things it offers. That's the way I've been trying to handle it all."

Gordon has been impressed with the way his prize rookie has handled himself, even as his scoring touch has gone away.

"I think it's a hard thing for any player coming in as a 19-year-old -- to be asked to blend in. Because of the expectations of him being the first pick overall, and then for him to have the success that he had early, everybody wants it all the time. He wants it all the time too," he said. "I was talking to him, 'You're going to have your ups and downs. You're a first-year player and you're 19 years old, and there're things you're going to figure out and the game will eventually get easier for you. The biggest thing is that you can't beat yourself up over it. It can't be a job; it has to be fun. Don't go home and take the game with you. Get away from it.'

"I think he's such a focused kid and has such a great passion for the game of hockey that sometimes I think he beats himself up too much over it."

Tavares said his first three months have been a big-time learning experience -- one that he's putting to good use.

"I don't know if anything has really surprised me," he told "There've been a lot of things that are new and a lot of things that I've been experiencing that are different that what I've been accustomed to.

"I'm playing a lot more games, it's more of a grind, the guys are bigger and stronger and they've been doing this for a long time. There's stuff I'm learning and tying to get through and understand how I can handle it."
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