Baby-Faced Center Has Made Big Leap In Sophomore Season

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK (WFAN) — One year ago Thursday I wrote about how John Tavares needed to do several things to transform into the player that many felt he’d eventually become after being picked No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft.

He’s certainly doing them.

And he’s nearly where the Islanders need him to be.

Forget for a second that the Islanders will, barring something extremely unforseen, miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. We all knew that the 14-game losing streak that went from late October until late November basically sank any chance this team had of sneaking into the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

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But, to their credit and their interim coach’s credit, there is only one team in the conference that has played better than the Isles since the middle of December. The Islanders under quiet yet assertive coach Jack Capuano have amassed 50 points in 42 games, or, if you pro-rate that over a full season, roughly 98 points — enough to more than qualify for the playoffs. The Bruins, the team currently in third place in the East and one the Islanders dominated 4-2 on Friday, have 53 points in their last 39 games dating to Dec. 16.

Tavares’ role in the Islanders playing very much like a playoff team, even if they won’t end up in the tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup, actually started on March 16, 2010, when the then-rookie notched a career-high five points in a 5-2 win at Vancouver. It followed a dreadful 38-game stretch that featured the player the fan base was and still is banking on to be the savior over the next decade registering just 10 points and what’s worse, just three goals.

But since that breakout game at Rogers Arena, the night Tavares for all intents and purposes kicked in the door of the NHL and gave it a taste of what he will one day become, he has 75 points, including 44 assists, spanning 80 games, including career highs of 25 goals and 32 assists this season with 12 games to play. Considering his current trend, there is absolutely no reason going forward, aside from a serious injury, he can’t be a 40-40 or 30-50 player or more in the NHL, something that is a bit of a rarity these days.

Back in the old days guys like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux set the standard by routinely averaging more than two points a game in a league that was all about offense, but today’s game is really not about offense, even if NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman wants you to believe it is. Only 13 of the top 27 scorers in the league this season are averaging more than a point a game. It’s still not certain if the same number of players as last season’s four will reach 100 points by the end of the regular season. Contrast those numbers with 1988-89, the season Lemieux had 199 points and Gretzky had 163. Among the NHL leaders there were nine players with at least 100 and 32 that averaged at least a point a game.

So for the Islanders to have a kid like Tavares (let’s not forget he’s still only 20) already knocking on the door of the point-a-game club speaks volumes about where they can go in the coming years. Throw in the fact that the Isles are one of just six teams to have four players with at least 20 goals, including Calder Trophy favorite Michael Grabner (28) and Matt Moulson (29), who is just one shy of his career high set last season, and it’s pretty easy to surmise just how good offensively this team may become in the future, considering the league’s trend toward more responsible play in teams’ own ends.

So I’m in the bathroom at Nassau Coliseum back on March 5 during the first intermission of the Islanders’ eventual 5-2 win over St. Louis and I hear these two 20-something guys talking about how Tavares will never live up to the expectations so many have for him. Apparently those two geniuses had already made up their minds that he’ll just never be a complete two-way player.

I beg to differ. Tavares did everything expected of him in the offseason. He got bigger. His skating improved. Once this season started he developed a bit of a mean streak, which for him is saying something. He became more responsible in his own end, a better back-checker, a better face-off man (currently 21st overall in draws won, 52 percent). And he quietly became a leader for the Islanders in more ways than simply in the stat book.

One of his biggest criticisms last season was he just had a hard time creating his own scoring opportunities. He was consistently muscled off the puck and the league caught up to him after he amassed 26 points in his first 30 professional games. What followed was the near-half season abyss that featured plenty of minus nights and even more instances of shots failing to even go on net.

That’s hardly the case these days. Tavares has often been the best player on the ice on a nightly basis. His hands remain among the best in the NHL and his work in the corners and behind the net often leave opponents throwing their bodies at air. His passing is an often overlooked aspect of his game, but he’s adept at finding the open man even when he’s initially not open. Just ask Moulson, who on several occasions this season has tapped in pucks thanks to Tavares’ sheer brilliance going one way only to find the back door.

Prior to the 2009 draft the big question was would the Isles take Tavares, Matt Duchene or Viktor Hedman No. 1 overall. The fan base was pretty much in agreement that Tavares offered the most upside. And even though Duchene had the better rookie season, Tavares is now beginning to assert himself as the premiere player of that class.

If the Islanders are to one day be all they can be — whether that means simply a playoff team or much, much more — Tavares will be — and I apologize to Reggie Jackson in advance here — the straw that stirs the drink. He’s given the fans every indication that he not only likes Long Island and this franchise but that he intends to stay around for a long time.

Islanders fans can only hope that means one day No. 91 will be hanging in the rafters next to the other six immortals. Obviously there’s a long way to go before that’s even a consideration, but it doesn’t erase the fact that the Isles haven’t had a player like this to hang their helmets on in ages.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

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