By Wayne Scanlan
To the average hockey fan, the New York Islanders evoke a certain image:
Eccentric management operating a losing team out of an ancient arena.
From within, John Tavares holds a different view, having staked out a loyalist position. Tavares, the 21-year-old face of this long-troubled franchise, sees a promising young team with a realistic dream of reliving some of its old glory, and he would like nothing better than to help guide it there.
When Tavares signed a three-year, $33-million extension in September, he sent a strong message to his Islanders teammates and fans that – whatever else might befall this franchise – the cornerstone of hope was in place. The move was as important as it was symbolic, and perhaps surprising to some outsiders who would have understood if Tavares had opted for free agency at the first opportunity. Tavares saw the deal as a chance to show his loyalty to the club that made him the first overall pick in 2009.
“I was drafted here, they gave me a great opportunity to play as an 18, 19 year old,” Tavares said, prior to Friday’s game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place. “They put a lot of responsibility and belief in me and I see the attitude and culture changing and getting better every day.
Sitting in his stall in the visitors’ dressing room, Tavares, was wearing a ballcap pulled over his forehead, but peaked up from under it to look his interrogators in the eye as he spoke.
“We’re getting to be a team that wants to be successful year in and year out,” Tavares said. “Obviously we still have some things going on with our rink and some situations to get figured out but in terms of the hockey and the organizatin and the way I’ve been treated, where I see we’re headed, there was no hesitation from me.”
Having Tavares on board is no small thing. He makes the most cynical of Islanders fans believe the club might one day get a new building without having to move into a new but undersized arena in Brooklyn, where the team will play a game next season.
If only the Islanders might grow as a team to match No. 91′s personal growth, as a player and a man. Gone is the shy kid who led Canada to a world junior victory in this same building three years ago, before moving into Doug Weight’s home as an NHL rookie in 2009. Today, Weight is an assistant coach for the Isles and Tavares is gradually developing into a leader.
Quietly – how else on the Island – Tavares was ripping up the league last month while everyone raved about Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This week, Tavares edged out Malkin as the NHL’s first star for January, with nine goals and 13 assists in 13 games and was held off the scoresheet just once.
It is the kind of consistency Tavares has long talked about achieving, even as he works to improve his defensive play and skating. A Toronto skating coach, former figure skater Dawn Braid, has helped Tavares improve his skating stride, alongside an off-ice strength program.
Veteran Islanders defenceman Steve Staios believes Tavares is only beginning to be appreciated by fans and players alike. According to Staios, Tavares strength and skills are “underestimated” around the league.
A competitive lacrosse player in his youth, Tavares says Canada’s other national sport helped teach him how to roll off checks and fight through traffic.
“I grew up always playing against guys a bit older than me so I kind of had to take a beating a little bit,” said Tavares, whose uncle, also named John Tavares, is a lacrosse legend.
Watching Tavares and some of the other Islanders, like Kyle Okposo and P.A. Parenteau dance around in the first period against the Senators, it’s easy to see why this group was expected to make some noise in the east this season. They are creative with the puck.
Fans in Ottawa, not to mention Ottawa players, gained an appreciation for Tavares during the All-Star Game and skills competition as Tavares played alongside four Senators on behalf of Daniel Alfredsson’s team.
“He has incredible hands and vision,” said Alfredsson, respectfully. “His statistics show he’s having a good year, and as their team improves he will get more chances to score. He’s going to be a big star in this league.”
With Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner all tied up with contracts for three or more seasons, the Islanders could have a decent future if they avoid some of the goofy management decisions that have made them a non-contender for so long.
Tavares could be the captain by the time the organization figures out a way to replace the old Coliseum.
“It’s my third year now, I feel a lot more comfortable, I’m starting to get to know the league better, starting to mature a lot,” Tavares said. “So it’s nice to contribute, I’m just trying to keep it going.”