To say John Tavares is special is to repeat what has been said about him, in increasingly broader circles, for the last 15 years.
He was the first to be granted exceptional status by the OHL. There was the attempt to let him into the NHL draft early since his birthday was so close to the cutoff. There were the stories from both hockey and lacrosse. As his mother told the New York Times in 2007, two years before he became essential to the Islanders' future:
"It was one of the reasons why I moved him up an age. I had to. He played so aggressively and he was so strong."
Barbara described lacrosse games and soccer games where John would play so hard, he would be thrown out of games for simply running over other players. He was 5.
But as that article and so many others pointed out then, there have been plenty of special players at young ages. Each new level up the ladder weeds another crop out.
Although Tavares broke records and generated a hype machine coming out of the OHL, he wasn't even the consensus top pick at the time of the draft in 2009. (Majority? Yes. Consensus? No. Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene drew some votes. Thankfully the Isles went with the majority.) There was reason to believe he would be a very good player, but perhaps not a franchise star.
There's no reason to think that anymore.
In his rookie year Tavares exhibited the body weakness typical of a 19-year-old and the skating weakness projected by his draft year critics. Some wondered if his future would be at wing, not center.
They don't wonder that anymore.
Though Tavares was a great power play poacher in his rookie year, the power play did not run through him. It does now.
Though Tavares was a dangerous scorer in his rookie year, his weaknesses mad him a ripe for targeting by opponents' best lines. He's not a target now.
He used to feed Matt Moulson for the majority of that dynamic duo's goals, but in 2013 Moulson flashed his dishing side while Tavares scored at a rate that dwarfed his previous years. Tavares scored 28 goals in 48 games, three short of what he scored in 82 games in 2011-12 and four more than what he scored in 82 games of his rookie year.
I know when I watched Tavares during his rookie year, I saw a player who I thought would be a really good scorer but not a franchise cornerstone. Not someone to be mentioned in those generational superstar discussions.
But he's improved dramatically each season to the point that you can even wonder if he's following in Sidney Crosby's wake.
He's starting to get that attention, too. He is a Hart Trophy finalist in 2013. Media are routinely raving about him, with The Hockey News putting him just behind Crosby for its own MVP award. You see him high up on lists (the contract helps) more often than not now.
I don't expect him to be a Crosby (in the area of incessant whining about officiating, I expect him to be better), but an oft-cited trait about him, most recently in The Hockey News, is reminiscent of Crosby and makes you wonder how high he can go:
"All of us in the room see how hard he works every day," Matt Moulson said. "He just keeps getting better and better and that desire to not be satisfied with where he's at is one of the things that makes him so special."
He's just 22 years old and already drives his team. How much better can he get?