NHL Preview 2013: Return to Glory
Star center John Tavares is the man to turn around the fortunes of the New York Islanders
Since the NHL returned from its lockout in 2005, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin have jockeyed for the title of the biggest star in the NHL. But last season, a third name muscled its way into the conversation: John Tavares.
In the last 20 games of the shortened 2012–13 season the New York Islanders center began to fulfill his destiny as the team's superstar and savior, leading the Islanders to an 11-5-4 record and their first playoff appearance in six years. "It was my first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and there was really nothing quite like it," Tavares says. "It was so much fun, and the atmosphere and the energy from Long Island and the buzz around our fan base was incredible."
The eighth-seeded Islanders ultimately fell to Crosby and top-seeded Pittsburgh in six games. But the NHL took notice of the grit, determination, and fierce competitiveness of Tavares and his team. He was a Hart Trophy finalist as the league's most valuable player (he finished third in voting behind Ovechkin and Crosby), and the Islanders showed that they would no longer be the league's doormat.
This is the way things are supposed to be with Tavares leading the Islanders. He was the top overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft, an 18-year-old offensive dynamo that caused coaches and general managers to imagine a future rich with Stanley Cups. But when Tavares arrived on Long Island, his mission was larger than leading a rebuilding campaign. He would be responsible for nothing less than reviving a once-great franchise that had become a laughingstock.
The Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1979 and '83 and made the playoffs eight of the next 11 seasons. But after reaching the Wales (Eastern) Conference finals in 1993, they haven't won another playoff series and have made the postseason only six times in the last 19 seasons. For the faithful, it has been a long time since they had a reason to be excited. But when the team drafted Tavares, fans could feel a new era emerging in New York. Tavares is a natural offensive force, something that runs in the family. His uncle, also named John, is the all-time leading scorer in indoor lacrosse. "He is the greatest lacrosse player of all time," Tavares says. "I really looked up to him."
Tavares played some lacrosse before committing to hockey full time, entering the Ontario Hockey League at 14. (He was so talented he was admitted to the junior league a year early.) In the OHL, Tavares scorched opposing goalies, scoring 215 goals and 433 points in 247 games. He even broke a record held by Wayne Gretzky for most goals by a 16-year-old when Tavares netted 72 in 2007. Once in the NHL, Tavares adjusted easily to the pro game (112 goals and 249 points in 291 games), developing into one of the league's best power-play forwards and a leader on the ice and in the locker room.
"He's one of those guys you love to coach," Islanders coach Jack Capuano says. "Johnny makes everybody better. He leads every day by example. He's the hardest working guy at practice, on and off the ice."
Heading into the 2013–14 preseason, the Islanders were without a captain. As of press time, they had yet to announce who would wear the C this year, but chances are great that the 23-year-old Tavares will soon add that title to his list of accomplishments. "John has all the ingredients and all the special qualities that you look for in someone to lead your team," Capuano says. (Editor's Note: John Tavares was named Islanders captain on Sept. 9.)
When Tavares is named captain, his to-do list will be ambitious: establish the Isles as a dominant force in the conference; make deep playoff runs; and reclaim the Stanley Cup glory of the team's '80s heyday.
"Every day I step on the ice or any day that I'm in the gym, I put 100 percent into it. I want to get better. I'm never satisfied with what I've already done," Tavares says. "I get a lot of attention and I have a lot of responsibility with the organization and with my teammates. I just try to lead by example and set the tone for the way we want to play and be the team we want to be."
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Photo: GREGORY SHAMUS/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES