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A Note about Ice Time, Roles, Depth and John Tavares

With a different coach and a similar role, John Tavares is again scoring at the IIHF World Championship.
With a different coach and a similar role, John Tavares is again scoring at the IIHF World Championship.

Regardless of how long his "expiration date" is within any locker room he helms, Ken Hitchcock is, most would agree, a superb tactical coach. That makes him a lovely choice for a short tournament.

In the IIHF World Championship, with the luxury of talent oozing out of Canada's non-playoff-participating depths, he's using John Tavares (and most of his lineup) in lower minutes than they are accustomed to on their NHL teams. In Tavares's case, it's about seven minutes less per game -- and also generally matched against the opposition's lesser lines. No surprise then, with opponents like Norway, France, Switzerland and Belarus, that Tavares is leading the team in scoring. (To be fair, he also had a goal and assist against the U.S., and he's just scored tonight in the first period of Canada's game with Sweden.)

I'm not trying to diminish JT's accomplishments here. I want him piling up IIHF points like last May, when he had 7 goals in 7 games for Canada. He's the most exciting home-grown Islander to come along in ages, and I have high hopes for him. But Hitchcock's coaching does recall how one way to extract the highest production out of your most offensively dynamic players is to position them in roles against opponents' weaker links.

An example: In Vancouver, the Sedins have hit a new level of gaudy point totals in recent years thanks to being used in more opportune situations (lots of O-zone draws, just like the Isles use Tavares), as well as thanks to the less heralded usage of Ryan Kesler and, this year, Manny Malhotra in the "tough assignment" roles.

Small samples are dangerous, of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if the rap the Sedins are getting for low production in these playoffs is in part due to them not getting the shelter they had all season long with Malhotra in the lineup.

Some very rare stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Sidney Crosby will get gaudy offensive numbers no matter what role you throw at them. To isolate them against weaker opponents is a waste of how well they can dominate opponents of any quality. (Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim is traditionally used against whomever the opposition throws at him.) But the rest could use a little help from their coaches to boost their back-of-the-hockey-card numbers.

Tavares is still on the early part of the development curve at age 20 and is a relentless, disciplined student of the game. I've no doubt his all-around game will continue to grow to the limits of his physical abilities. To that end, I like how Jack Capuano has used him. With lots of offensive zone starts and powerplay minutes, Tavares and his linemates were 1-2-3 for the Islanders in scoring this season, as they should be, yet they weren't isolated from tough competition and took their lumps, too. (And frankly, their low plus/minus this year is a bit deceptive, as their all-around play was second only to the Frans Nielsen line.)

But with pundits like Craig Button still advocating the thought of moving Tavares to the wing, and me yammering on and on in this space about the importance of collecting unsung tough minutes players to build depth, I just wanted to throw this topic out there for consideration, because the discussion of production and stardom should go beyond how many points a guy collects:

There is more than one way to skin a cat*. There is more than one way to leverage Tavares' special offensive talent. Tavares will get better, and his production will increase, but it will increase even more if the forward depth gets better on the non-Tavares lines. The more quality forwards the Islanders have playing "below" Tavares, the more confident Islanders coaches will feel using those guys against better lines, thus setting a still-improving JT up to feast on weaker competition and offense-friendly situations.

*Statement not endorsed by PETA, as far as I know

Maybe one day Tavares develops into a fully rounded force who can be sent out against any opponent without concern for matchups. But even if he doesn't, that's alright. There are still ways to get him glory and points while Frans Nielsen-like players take on roles that limit their own offensive opportunities...yet combine to make a winning team.


P.S.: Further Isles Reading

Some other good afternoon reading/discussion fodder courtesy of Anarcurt FanShots: Whether the Flyers should bid for Evgeni Nabakov, and a discussion of THN's offseason game plan for the Isles.