In his last 14 games, John Tavares has 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists). After finishing with 24 goals his rookie season and 29 as a sophomore, he already has 20 though 48 games this season. This weekend, he'll participate in this first All Star game in Ottawa.
But it’s two written articles related to the young center that really have Islanders fans buzzing lately.
The first, an ESPN.com list of the Top 25 NHL players under 25 years of age, omitted Tavares in favor of several players who most casual observers would classify as less talented. There was enough of a response to Tavares’ absence that writer Neil Greenberg penned a follow-up article explaining why he left Tavares off the list. According the Greenberg, the difference was that Tavares has only two full NHL seasons with no playoff appearances and is lacking in a few team-related stats as well as a nebulous “clutch performance” stat of Greenberg’s own devising. While Greenberg’s response was surprising and appreciated, it did little to calm fans’ feelings that their guy had been snubbed, and has been refuted using both statistics (from LHH’s own Garik16) and snark (from Islanders play-by-play voice Howie Rose).
The second and most recent article is a cover story in The Hockey News which features a picture of Tavares and the word “STRANDED” in bold letters across the headline. The feature, written by Ryan Kennedy, asserts that Tavares has not “saved” the Islanders in the way that Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have lifted their franchises because his teammates are simply not good hockey players. Kennedy cites no stats or in-depth analysis. He references the early season benching of Kyle Okposo, the offensive struggles of Josh Bailey, the low draft position of free agent pick-ups Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau and the failures of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft as evidence that Tavares’ time on Long Island may be wasted.
A common thread in both cases is that Tavares, a deft playmaker with excellent hands and vision, is being marginalized or penalized for the many past sins of Islanders mismanagement throughout the decades. It’s not a secret that the Islanders have been one of the NHL’s worst teams over the past several seasons and have spent a better part of the last two decades in the bottom half of the standings. But for Tavares to be painted with that same drab brush is unfair for one reason that’s already evident in his still young career.
John Tavares is the exact opposite of everything that has categorized Islanders hockey in the post-Dynasty era. He is the antithesis of what Islanders fans have come to know and loathe about their team. Complaining about the Tavares articles isn’t only sour grapes from Islanders fans. The articles matter because if the Islanders are ever going to escape the ghetto that’s been assigned to them, they’re going to need to mold themselves as Tavares’ reflection.
The Islanders front office is often described as “dysfunctional” or “bizarre” and the team as “the worst run franchise in sports.” They have a reputation for poorly drafting, managing and developing their prospects. They are spoken of mainly in terms of lopsided trades and ill-advised contracts. They are kicked around as a franchise that could easily be relocated to accommodate a new NHL market. Their players might as well wear one of two nameplates; “who is that?” and “he’s still in the league?” They’re barely covered by their own hometown newspaper and are either dismissed or ridiculed by visiting media. Every move they make, even ones logical on hockey terms, are held up for jokes. Their home arena, the ancient Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, is the target of just as many barbs as the team and is a concrete symbol of the Islanders irrelevant last two decades.
Tavares exhibits none of these qualities. As a hockey prodigy in the Toronto area, Tavares has been scouted and scrutinized for most of his life. He broke junior league scoring records and became a much-talked about name years before he was even drafted. He is far and away the Islanders’ most notable player (save Rick DiPietro, for all the wrong reasons) and is the one guy every fan in the opposing arena is going to have heard about. Out-of-town media almost always feature Tavares in their preview stories before games against the Islanders, usually under the headline, “To beat Islanders, TEAM X must stop Tavares.”
There was a brief time last season when there may have been a debate as to whether the Islanders had made yet another draft blunder when they selected Tavares first overall in 2009. He jumped right onto the Islanders as an 18-year-old and aside from the usual rookie ups and downs, he did not look out of place in the NHL and played a full season. Tavares’ improvement on offense over two and a half seasons, his calm professional personality and his propensity this season to control games and literally drive his team on the ice have buried any arguments about his draft position or development.
His statistics only tell part of Tavares' story this season. Despite a 13-game goal drought, Tavares has been a consistent force on the ice on every shift. When his line is on, there's an anticipation that something - goals, shots, an aggressive forecheck, a breakaway - will happen in the Islanders favor. It's not an exaggeration to say that he has not taken a minute off in any game this season. His skating, always thought of as his biggest weakness, and his strength on the puck have improved by leaps and bounds thanks to a new off-season training regimen (just ask Max Talbot and Nazim Kadri, two recent opponents who tried to knock Tavares off the puck only to end up watching him skate away while sitting on their butts).
He's currently in the NHL's top 25 in points, as are Moulson and Parenteau, two of his "inferior" teammates. To claim the Islanders have superstars at every position is absurd. But so is holding it against Tavares that he's not lined up with players like Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marian Hossa or Duncan Keith. Rehashing the 2003 Draft, conducted under a different Islanders management team when Tavares was 12 years old, is irrelevant to his future with the team. Citing a lack of playoff appearances, which usually happen because 20 or so teammates play well as a unit over a full season, as an argument that one guy isn’t as good as everyone says is borderline delusional.
Named one of the alternates under captain Mark Streit, Tavares started out this season wearing the A only for home games, but has recently been sporting a letter full time. His leadership is visible both in his play and his general demeanor on the ice. Even Streit says he’s a strong voice out there and has matured and asserted himself more often since his first two seasons. There is no doubt that when the time comes to name Streit’s successor, Tavares will get the call.
Tavares signed a six-year contract extension with the Islanders last summer before his entry level contract even expired. When he signed the deal, a Toronto radio host asked, “why would he do this?” The answer is because Tavares is obviously committed to the franchise and to Long Island, and he has been nothing but complimentary and respectful towards his new home. The contract is not a shocking leap of faith like DiPietro’s 15-year deal, nor is it a gross overpayment for a talented but overrated player like Alexei Yashin’s 8-year, $80 million contract was. Tavares’ pact represents a fair deal for both a player who has demonstrated a great but still improving skill level and a desire to win and the team that needs to build a sustained culture of success around him.
Tavares cannot, unfortunately, straighten out the political webs that have held up construction of a new arena for nearly three decades. But he is currently the focus of nearly all of the Islanders’ promotional efforts and advertising. A quick look around the stands at the amount of No. 91 jerseys and T-shirts tells us that the word of Tavares is spreading. He has said in multiple interviews this week that he'll be proud to represent the Islanders in the league's showcase All Star Weekend.
The Islanders fall from competency was brought about by a toxic mix of impatience, instability and incompetence by a great many people over a very long period of time. Bad ownership, bad executives, bad players and a bad arena tied up in bad deals with bad politicians and bad corporations have pushed the Islanders to the far, far edges of the hockey world.
Their march back to respectability centers around Tavares. He personifies what the Islanders can and should be in the future – talented, motivated and driven to winning on Long Island. He is what fans want the Islanders to be. And if this franchise is ever to break from the grotesque cocoon it's wrapped itself in, it will need to view, treat and exemplify Tavares as not just a player, but as a prototype.
(edit: changed "scoring" to "points" in paragraph 10)