I'm gonna level with you people: I don't think John Tavares is going to leave Las Vegas tonight with the Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player.
There are probably compelling arguments to be made that he should win over Canadiens goalie Carey Price or Washington's Alex Ovechkin, but I'm not the guy to make them. Price stopped 99.99 percent of pucks thrown towards him and Ovechkin was even more Ovechkin than he has been in a long time, so Tavares has a tough fight on his hands against the other finalists, even after setting career highs in goals and points last season.
If I'm right, and Tavares ends up applauding and smiling politely while Price makes his way up to the podium, it might feel like a final, bitter, kick in the shins in a disappointing season. First, the Islanders fall from first place and stumble into the playoffs. Then Tavares loses the Art Ross Trophy to Jaime Benn with eight goddamn seconds left in the season. Then the Islanders lose in a lackluster seventh game to Ovechkin's Capitals to end the Nassau Coliseum era on a down note.
Leaving a season unsatisfied is nothing new to Islanders fans, who haven't seen the second round of the playoffs since the Clinton administration. Spending all summer being pissed off and worried is as much a part of Islanders fandom as singing the Rangers-baiting version of The Chicken Dance. Eventually, that melancholy makes room for more pressing matters such as the draft, free agency and building for the next season, which surely will end as badly as the last one did.
What's gotten lost in all that sports fan self-pity, and has barely been mentioned since his season ended, is that Tavares is a Hart finalist for the second time in three seasons, a feat no Islander has accomplished since the team's late 70's/early 80's glory days. Bryan Trottier was a finalist in 1978 and 79, taking the trophy in the latter year, and in 1982 and 84.
For the second time in three seasons, the Islanders current captain can stand among the league's best. For the second time in three seasons, the Professional Hockey Writers Association, an organization we around here generally accuse of going to great lengths to ignore the Islanders, voted for Tavares enough times that he's one of the three names at the top of the table. For the second time in three seasons, the guy whose jersey or shirt or poster you own has been judged as one of the elite players in the NHL.
John Tavares is very, very good at hockey. And we might be taking him for granted.
In my first FanPost at Lighthouse Hockey, I wrote about how Tavares is the "Anti-Islander," representing the exact opposite of the often chaotic team that employs him. Since he first put on an Islanders jersey, Tavares has been poised, focused and always improving, something that can't be said for the organization.
At the time I wrote the post, Tavares was about to make his first All Star Game appearance. Three years, a captaincy, two playoff appearances, another All Star Game (in which he scored four goals and should have won the MVP), an Olympic gold medal (yeah, yeah) and about 100 goals later, the Islanders are viewed as a team on the rise and a legit threat to win on any given night. And no matter who gets added around him, Tavares is at the head of the line.
The current water cooler discussion is about Kyle Okposo's next contract, but Tavares' next deal is the elephant in the room. Okposo is a talented, consistent, likeable player. But Tavares is the molten core of the roster. We can expect the Islanders to do what they have to to keep him.
His price tag will eclipse any others, as it should. Anything less than the moon would be a discount.
The Islanders hitched their wagon to Tavares in 2009 and as the lead horse, he has pulled them back onto the road they had lost long before.
So tonight, watch the Awards Show and hope. Hey, you never know. Maybe he wins by virtue of not being a goalie.
But if he doesn't, he's still the Anti-Islander. He's still the guy whose name you can wear on your back. Still the guy we get to call ours every season.
The guy who's so good, it's easy to forget how good he is.