One of the most exciting question marks at the beginning of the season was John Tavares and his rookie campaign with the Islanders. After last season’s catastrophe and all of the Lighthouse politics during the offseason, Tavares symbolized more than just a top-line center. Anyone who saw the Nassau Coliseum on Draft Night could see that he was more than just a #1 overall pick.
Now that we’ve reached the season’s conclusion, we have a good opportunity to take a look back at Tavares and his first season on Long Island. We figured the best way to do this would be to ask some people who watched him play 82 times this season—New York Islander bloggers. We asked Dominik from Lighthouse Hockey, BD Gallof from Hockey Independent, Angelica Rodriguez from NY Isles Scene, and Michael Schuerlein from Islesblogger.com to give us some insight and opinions on Mr. #91 himself. Their answers should give you a deeper glimpse into Tavares’s season that you won’t be able to find from anyone who didn’t follow him all season.
1. Before the season started, a lot of people picked John Tavares to win the Calder. As we wind down the 82-game marathon, it looks like he won’t even be among the 3 finalists. What happened?
Dominik: I can’t deny that back in September I at least held some hope that Tavares would win the Calder, but I sure wouldn’t have bet on it. It’s unrealistic, and history doesn’t bear it out: First-overall picks go to bad teams. They play their first NHL game at the youngest possible age, with the greatest possible pressure. If anyone really figured Tavares would blow the league away or run away with the Calder, then they’re drunk and spoiled by two generational stars landing in the league’s lap in 2004 and 2005. Tavares is not a Crosby or Ovechkin.
So what happened to Tavares’ Calder candidacy? Like every rookie, he had ups and downs, streaks and slumps. Only with Tavares, his streaks were condensed into the first quarter and the last quarter, while his slump was a long stretch in the middle of the year (when he hit countless posts, I should add), the same time Tyler Myers, Matt Duchene, and Jimmy Howard got hot for teams that … all made the playoffs.
BD Gallof: Several things. Let’s first step back and realize that there is only a 5 pt difference between Duchene and Tavares. Now, let’s look at the two teams. One is playoff bound, the other is lights out. Go deeper and look at the offense around both players and another story becomes
Take a look…
SKATERS: G A Pts
P. Stastny 20 58 78
C. Stewart 28 36 64
M. Duchene 24 31 55
M. Hejduk 23 20 43
John Tavares 22 28 50
Kyle Okposo 18 30 48
Mark Streit 11 35 46
Matt Moulson 28 18 46
Tavares leads his team, while around him, nobody can get to even 50 pts. That’s pretty weak. On Colorado, Duchene, who had a great season, also benefits from some amazing talent. By the way, Hedjuk did 43 pts in only like 55 games.
There is not a doubt that Tavares fell victim to a funk and power outage mid-season. This is his first NHL season and unlike Duchene, he has played far, far more games than most other rookies in the last couple of years. Many who knew him over the years just felt he was tired and needed a rest. Since the Olympic break, he kicked it up a notch again…and that proves their point. Add in that Gordon’s system is up-tempo and Tavares is not exactly The Flash, you know he worked his kiester off at this level..and with undoubted success. 50 pts is pretty commendable, especially when he leads a team that really cannot score or support that offense. It let a lot of opponents focus on Tavares solely. Meanwhile, not so with Duchene, where others can score – and did. You have to look deeper than the surface here to get a read on the whys and whats. It was a good year for both, but I think it’s really between Tyler Myers, the big D from Buffalo and Jimmy Howard, G in Detroit for this year’s Calder.
Angelica: Well, Tavares is a rookie still- he started out hot, and ended up going through a really long dry spell. And it wasn’t just him- plenty of guys, including Kyle Okposo and last season’s points leader Mark Streit, weren’t getting it done for the Isles. He put together a really nice points streak to finish out the year, but it ended up not being enough, and honestly, I think that should be expected from a rookie. He’s still trying to find his groove, which is typical of this entire team once you think about it.
Michael: Well the Islanders have a very young team, Tavares and Moulson were quite the 1-2 punch at the start of the year but I never expected that production to last. The other rookies all had a better team around them too – which needs to be taken into account as well. I do not think that Tavares was expecting the season to be so rough, I mean he is 19 – so between the physical and emotional stresses I think you have your answer.
The Olympic break did him wonders, so an offseason of training and the break will have him atthe top of his game. No dissapointments here.
2. Over the course of the season, did he meet any expectations that YOU had for him? Are there parts to his game that you didn’t expect? Are there things that you expected him to be better at?
Dominik: He absolutely met my expectations, though via a route I never expected. I figured he’d have a very slow start and then slowly come on as he adapted to the NHL. Instead he had a very hot start (9 goals, 10 assists in his first 21 games) — although you could see the undeveloped parts of his game even as he racked up points — then suffered through a very cold winter, and rebounded with a return to form after the Olympic break. His play in the final 20 games was his best all-around play of the season and was a great sign for the future.
Before the season I said if he got between 20 and 30 goals I’d be happy. He finished with 24 (same as Duchene), with one assist less than Duchene, while playing on a much weaker team. He logged first-line minutes and handled like a champ the burden of being “The Great Hope” for a starving franchise.
BD Gallof: Actually, I was concerned about his speed and skating. But as I was told by one of his former coaches, Mike Oke, his skating was slagged far too much by the peanut gallery. So when the Isles played the Pens in the season opener, and Tavares flew down the ice, powered by strong strides and was able to tally scores and assists against the powerful Cup champs, it showed what he was made of. He has to skate hard and play hard, and that takes a toll. He will build on that with his endurance. As the season went along, as the Isles lost wind in their sails, it was also because he had lost wind in his own sails. He was tired, in a scoring drought funk, and in a team malaise with a bunch of rookies and a 2nd year coach. Not exactly with a lot of vets who can not just tell the way, but show it with scoring and assists. Instead, Tavs was the top dog. He was the only one carrying the offense along with other kids, and a goalie who had a great year.
I didn’t really expect much better. Had there been a team around him of top talent and proven guys…and some scoring around him…there is no reason he couldn’t get 60 pts in his 1st season. Or at least matching stats, despite his mid-season funk. He did 50 pts with little help, a piss-poor lack of talent of top liners, and with a ton of hopes and pressures on his shoulders. Not an easy feat.
Angelica: Well, I expected him to be at least a 20-goal scorer, which he has been, and his 50 points on the year is great as well. I expected him to be a bit more of a do-it-all kind of guy the way people had been raving about him, but it seemed like most of his goals came from the same spot- that back post area where the goalie wasn’t looking. However, he definitely showed off a bit of his offensive flair in the shootout a few times. His defensive play is also a little better than what I expected, and under Scott Gordon I think it’ll only get better.
Michael: Tavares was billed as someone who couldn’t play defense, but what surprised me was how well he responded to Scott Gordon’s system. By years end he was backchecking and playing a strong physical game on both sides of the puck.
He does need to get stronger and work on his skating, but offensively he is as advertised. If that five point night a few weeks ago is any indication of what is to come – that is an exciting thought.
3. Tavares’s presence (and name) is obviously important for the future of the Islanders. What are some improvements that you hope to see from him next season?
Dominik: His faceoff proficiency wasn’t bad (47.5; Duchene’s was 44.0), but I do hope it improves, particularly for a guy with such subtle, deft hands. He should be able to at least break even there as he learns the league.
He did pretty well logging first-line minutes against the East’s best checkers this year, and his all-around game improved down the stretch. (Before the Islanders bled goals in their final three games, he’d turned his pre-Olympic minus-18 into a minus-9.) I trust that improvement continues.
Most importantly, I hope this summer he’ll improve his strength — whether it’s leg or core strength (or likely all of the above), he needs to get stronger so he is knocked off the puck less often. With his reputation as a determined and tireless worker, I don’t think that will be a problem.
BD Gallof: Well, one main one is his endurance, obviously. He’s played a lot in the last 4 years, but never at the NHL level and speed till this year. I would like to see more consistency and a bit less of that petering out that happened this season mid-way. He needs to work on his leg strength and play the way he started and had for about 1/3 of the season….strong strides, strong moves, and that scoring ability has shown he can do it as the top level…he just needs to build on that and perform night after night for the full season like that. Each season needs to be a step forward in that regard, all else will come together.
Angelica: I think as the season went on, JT got a bit more comfortable with shooting at all areas of the net, and I hope and believe that’ll improve next season. I would also like to see him develop his defensive play more.
Michael: Well, as I said previously, he needs to put on some muscle and weight so he is stronger on his feet. I think he will come in like Okposo did this year and evolve into a very tough player to defend against. Just look at his (Tavares’) work in corners and around the net the last weeks of the season!
4. If you could go back and do the draft all over again, would you still want Garth Snow and Company to select Tavares? Why/why not?
Dominik: I’d absolutely pick Tavares again. It’s funny: 2009′s draft worked out perfectly for all three teams at the top: At the time, I saw the “long-term NHLer” play as a toss-up between Tavares, Duchene and Hedman. It still is and probably will be for several years. The nice thing is there were three great, different players available at the top of that draft, and the Islanders chose the one they needed most now and in the future: Urgently, desperately, they needed a top-flight scorer. (Honestly, I think all three teams at the top of the 2009 draft got the player they needed most.)
The Islanders already had two solid two-way centers in the making in Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen; what their system lacked was high-end offensive talent. After one year of watching John Tavares, I know that’s what they acquired last June.
BD Gallof: Islanders loved all three of last years draft. They tried to feint, duck and weave on rumors to get Tampa or Colorado to bite on making a trade to the top position because they graded all of them highly. My concern about Duchene was he was never the top guy and the top
focus…which is what anyone of these kids on the Isles would be. Tavares had shown that ability…and look…who is #1 on that team in his rookies season with that focus and attention… John Tavares. Duchene went to his perfect scenario…he still gets to be the guy behind the guy tallying up with his speed and playing, but he is not the focal point. So, proven correct, Tavares is still shown to be exactly what the Isles wanted.
Also.. there would have been a riot with the fans at the Coliseum had he not been picked.
Angelica: I do think I would have wanted Snow and Co. to select JT all over again, simply because he is an asset to our offense. He’s a very smart player and he did give us 22 goals- and this time last year, we were extremely hard-pressed for offense. Of course, having Matt Moulson on our team helped as well, because they’re good friends and have good chemistry on the ice, but I really think that Tavares can be a solid player, a 35-40 goalscorer in a couple of years. You also have to take into account the fact that everyone around him is basically developing along with him, so if you find a couple of seasoned, durable veterans that can help out, it will only help.
Not a knock on Duchene or Hedman, but both of those players would look different in an Islanders uniform for the same reasons I mentioned earlier. Tavares is an A-1 prospect and those do not grow on trees. At times this season he has done some really amazing things, something I have not seen an Islanders player capable of in a very long time.
The Islanders own at the very least the 5th or 6th pick tonight in the lottery, it’s another chance to add an important part of the puzzle. It’s hard not to get excited about the future when it comes down to that, just look at the great young crop of players they have maturing together!
Special thanks to Dominik, BD, and Angelica for their time and insight. If you’re interested in anything Islanders related, these should be your first stops.