UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- John Tavares
is a bright, handsome 19-year-old who's carrying the weight of a hockey team on his young shoulders.
So far, he's not buckling under the load.
The New York Islanders
took Tavares with the first pick in the 2009 Entry Draft and have wasted little time making him the face of the franchise. His presence has attracted the kind of attention the Isles only rarely have seen since their dynasty days in the 1980s.
That might be a lot for a teenager to handle. But as Tavares has reminded more than one writer when asked about the media hubbub that follows him around, he's been getting this kind of attention since he was 14.
"I can understand the attention and it's been there for a while," he told a swarm of media during the Isles' recent visit to Montreal. "I handle it the best I can and just worry about what I do on the ice and make sure I'm prepared every day to help my team."
On the ice, he's done just that. Tavares had a goal and an assist on opening night against Pittsburgh and had 7 points in the Isles' first six games -- plus the shootout-clinching goal in the Isles' first win of the season last week. After going four games without a point, he scored the insurance goal Wednesday night in the Islanders' 3-1 victory against the New York Rangers
at Nassau Coliseum.
Whatever questions there may have been about whether Tavares was ready for the NHL have been put to rest. There was no question that, despite the mini-slump that ended Wednesday, he'd be around after the Isles' ninth game, the deadline for sending teenagers back to their junior teams.
"I wasn't even thinking about it," he said after Game 10, a 3-2 overtime loss at Montreal on Monday night. "I was told to get living arrangements during training camp. I think the whole plan was to get me comfortable as the season went along."
As his NHL career nears the end of its first month, Tavares gives the appearance of a player who's enjoying the learning experience that goes along with the introduction to life in the NHL.
"It's been great. I've been learning a lot, experiencing a lot of new things," he said after the win against the Rangers. "I'm starting to learn the way of life in the NHL and what it takes to be a pro every day. Everyone from the staff and management, the coaching staff, the trainers and my teammates have been great. They've helped me out a lot with stuff away from the ice and allowed me to focus on hockey. That's made it a lot easier. It's been a lot of fun."
Especially when you score a goal to help your team beat its biggest rival, right?
"Being in games like this one is what I worked for as a kid," he said. "To finally be here and be a part of this is special for me, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year."
One thing that's impressed his teammates and coaches is his work ethic and willingness to play at both ends of the ice.
"He'll make mistakes like any of our players will in the defensive zone, but it's not from cheating, and it's something he'll get better at," coach Scott Gordon
said after the OT loss at Montreal. "You expect first-year players to struggle in that area, but he's a smart kid, he knows where to be on the ice and I'm real excited about what he brings to the table."
"Being in games like this one is what I worked for as a kid. To finally be here and be a part of this is special for me, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year."
-- John Tavares, after 3-1 win against the Rangers on Wednesday
"I know how hard he works at developing his game every day," said linemate Matt Moulson
, whose younger brother played with Tavares in youth hockey and so has known him for years. "He's only going to get better once he figures out what he can and can't do and how much time he has. I think the sky's the limit for him."
In some ways, Tavares looks older than his years. After beating the Rangers, the 19-year-old handled the media horde with the same aplomb he's shown on the ice, answering every question while sitting at his locker with a white hard hat on his head.
"It's just a team thing that we have going on inside the locker room," Tavares said when asked about the hat. "I don't want to say too much about it." But he was clearly glad to have it on and smiled while being surrounded by media bearing cameras, tape recorders and notepads.
Tavares has found that NHL goaltenders are a lot tougher to beat than the netminders he saw in junior hockey -- his goal against the Rangers came a period after Henrik Lundqvist
flat-out robbed him on a wide-open 10-footer from the slot. But he's also comfortable with the idea that if he keeps putting pucks on net, some of them -- like the one against the Rangers -- are going to go in.
"I was trying to get it to Dougie (Weight) back-door, and the pass got blocked and I just threw it again, hoping it would get to him and I got a lucky bounce," he said. "I'm just trying to get pucks to the net, create some rebounds and get some stuff going on. It's always nice when you're working hard and things aren't going your way for a few games to finally come through. It's great. It's nice that it was able to come in a win for us."