If the NHL has a Sisyphus, it would have to be John Tavares. It seems like the Islanders' 22-year-old center is in a constant struggle to achieve true hockey stardom and success for his team: Every time he seems to be nearing the pinnacle, he has to lace up his skates and try to get back there again while pushing a boulder of a franchise uphill.
Tavares came into the NHL in 2009 as the most highly-touted prospect since Sidney Crosby. He was the first recipient of the Exceptional Status tag that allowed him to enter major junior hockey a year early, and during his time in the Ontario Hockey League he not only broke Wayne Gretzky's record for goals by a 16-year-old (70), he also became the league's all-time leading goal-scorer, with 215 tallies. He then had the misfortune of being drafted into the NHL at a time when it was brimming with young stars. In 2009-10, Tavares' first season, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were in ascendance in Chicago, Steven Stamkos produced his first 50-goal campaign for Tampa Bay, and Matt Duchene (Colorado) and Tyler Myers (Buffalo) were the cream of the rookie crop.
Although Tavares notched a respectable 54 points that season, critics harped on his lack of foot speed and ability to maintain possession of the puck. Fully aware of his shortcomings, he went back to work during the off-season with the intention of becoming a more complete player.
"I think the thing I've worked on most is my skating and being strong on my feet," he says. "I want to keep getting better, I want to keep working at being a more well-rounded player, whether it's getting opportunities on the penalty kill or winning face-offs, and hopefully it will all come together and I'll keep pushing myself to get to new levels every season."
With any other player, that might sound like your standard Bull Durham-approved media speak, but with Tavares you get the sense that he is never satisfied with his evolution as a player. The fruits of his drive have been improved point totals every season since he came into the league, and any naysayers have largely been silenced.
"It's not surprising to me where he was Year One and where he is now," says Isles coach Jack Capuano, who has helmed the team since 2010. "He's a guy that continues to work on his game day in and day out, which makes him the elite player that he is."
And Tavares truly is an elite player in the NHL these days. He ranks ninth in the league with 39 points, and his 23 goals trail only Stamkos, who at this point is more machine than hockey player anyway. Over the past two seasons, only three players -- Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux -- have produced more points than Tavares, who is now willing a long-suffering franchise into a playoff spot.
Isle of hope
The sound you often hear on Long Island is the boulder rolling back down the mountain. Perhaps the main reason why Tavares is not a household name with hockey fans is the fact that the Islanders are as far as you can get from center stage in hockey's biggest market without being in Calgary. Once the class of the NHL, the Isles haven't won a playoff round since 1993 or even reached the postseason since 2007, and since Tavares arrived, they've finished at the bottom of the Atlantic Division every year while the nearby Rangers and Devils have gone on to considerable success, meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Promising starts by the team have been undone by losing skids or cascades of injuries. Seemingly in perpetual rebuild and unable to attract marquee free agents, the Islanders' wait for their top prospects to blossom or simply stay healthy has required great patience and perseverance. All of this means that Tavares has been playing in relative obscurity, but that may be changing this year.
He is often mesmerizing to watch, and even on television he automatically draws the viewer's eye when he's playing against stronger teams with more recognized stars. Tavares moves smoothly, and assertively around the ice, not with the crouched, manic energy of Crosby or with Kane's stickhandling theatrics. His skill exhibits itself in subtle flashes: shouldering a defenseman off the puck here, a seeing-eye pass there, a whip-crack snap shot like the one he unleashed against the Capitals last Tuesday for a late winning goal. Make no mistake though, when Tavares is on the ice the game rotates around number 91.
"Maybe he should get more attention, but that's just the way the sport is, we're not a big-market team" says Colin McDonald, an Islanders winger who came over from Pittsburgh before the season. "Last year I had the opportunity to play with Crosby and Malkin, and he's right up there with those guys if not even more skilled."
Still, Tavares wouldn't rather suit up for another team. He lives on Long Island, and has taken a liking to the area's fans and their commitment to a team whose renaissance has been a long time coming. "There's a real sense of tradition and the support, it's great," he says. "People wouldn't think so, but I couldn't be more pleased with the fans and the support that we have... there's real pride in what the Islanders have done, and we're hoping to get back to being successful again and being in the playoffs year in and year out."
McDonald, who has lived with Tavares this season after the star center offered to put him up until he found a place of his own, confirms that the appreciation is mutual. "People definitely recognize him, and I just kind of stand there awkwardly and nobody really knows who I am," McDonald says with a grin. "But we've had a couple good laughs and he has introduced me in those situations to make it more comfortable. Most places we go people will notice him. He's just so good at talking to people, taking pictures, and if someone wants something signed, he always does. He's really impressive in that sense."
Now that the Islanders are finally battling for a playoff spot late in the season, perhaps fans other than those on Long Island will finally recognize Tavares' skill for what it is. "People are starting to take notice of Johnny now," says Capuano. "You have to, he puts the team on his back and he likes the challenge night in and night out."
That phrase has taken on a different meaning during this lockout-shortened season, as the condensed schedule meant the playoffs started looming in February and teams play every other day at least. Tavares welcomes the change, and says, "You can definitely feel how fast the season is going and how important each and every game is...As disappointing as the lockout was, I think the positive is how unique the situation now is, and we're making the best of it."
He is certainly up to the task, and the Isles have gone 5-2 over their last seven games, with Tavares scoring in each victory. As of tnis writing, they have 10 games remaining, and if his team is to compete in the postseason -- and perhaps win a series -- Tavares will be the person to get them there. And who knows? Perhaps a national audience, an overtime game-winner and anointment via the play-calling of Doc Emrick will follow, and Tavares will take his rightful place among today's must-watch stars.
Perhaps after this season he will finally get to rest on his laurels at the top of the mountain, if only for a second before he gets back to the job of perfecting his game.
-- By Eli Bernstein