MONTREAL - For most junior-age NHL players, hitting the 10-game mark of the season brings a certain sense of relief because it means you will likely stick with the big club for the rest of the season.
But when you're the first overall pick in the draft and seen as a saviour for a franchise that desperately needs one, as is the case for New York Islanders centre John Tavares, it's a bit less of a landmark.
"I wasn't even thinking about it," Tavares said after his 10th game, a 3-2 overtime loss Monday night to the Montreal Canadiens. "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."
No, Tavares never had to deal with the threat of suddenly finding himself back riding the buses in junior, but the 19-year old Mississauga, Ont., native has hit the first rough patch of his extremely short NHL career after coming out of the blocks on fire.
Tavares had three goals and four assists in his first six games with the Isles, but after being held off the scoresheet Monday night he has now gone pointless in his last four contests.
He has nine shots on goal over that span and a minus-six rating, but head coach Scott Gordon sees no cause for concern in his budding rookie's development.
"I think it's come down to him and his linemates not scoring on the great opportunities that they've had," Gordon said. "He's still making plays, but teams are also starting to play him a little bit tighter now that they know what he's about."
Tavares did just that Monday night, setting up Bruno Gervais for a glorious chance in the slot midway through the third period, only to have the shot ring off the post. It was also Tavares' strong forechecking on Jaroslav Spacek that created the turnover that led to Jeff Tambellini's tying goal with under five minutes to play in regulation.
"Things will start bouncing you're way," Tavares said. "You just have to keep working and make sure you're doing other things well, just staying positive and working through it."
Gordon says he knew what Tavares could do with the puck, but he's been pleasantly surprised by his play without it, in spite of his less than flattering plus-minus rating.
"I think it was wrongly said that he would not be responsible defensively, I haven't found that to be the case," Gordon said. "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. 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."