By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — For all the misfortune that seems to follow the Islanders around, it’s often easy to overlook the fact that they employ one of the NHL’s true shooting stars.
In a part of the country that really treats its professional athletes like both gods and monsters, John Tavares is the one player who flies under the radar but at the same time carries the torch and aspirations of an entire fan base forever in search of respect.
All of the Islanders’ problems over the past 20 years have been well documented. They remain an afterthought not only in NHL circles, but, more alarmingly, within the stream of consciousness in the Tri-State Area. I see this reminder every day, but not just in the obvious ways. It’s bad enough the general theme online, where news and opinion is instantaneous, tends to feature this team as the butt of many jokes, but it runs deeper than that. Even in the most subtle and on the surface truly meaningless ways the Isles have been deemed as unimportant.
If you look at the horizontal task bar that lists the nine professional sports teams in our area on the WFAN.com sports front, the Islanders are the last team you see. Often it feels like just a matter of time before the Red Bulls or Liberty, two franchises that are, rightly or wrongly, generally ignored by not just WFAN but the Tri-State Area sports media in general, will jump into a more prominent position ahead of them. Part of the reason for the Isles’ placement has to do with the general view that hockey, though very popular in our area, will never be thought of as a sport as more important than baseball, football and basketball.
This despite the facts that the Rangers have transformed themselves into a Stanley Cup contender and the Devils have been the symbol of professional excellence, winning three championships, along with several other deep playoff runs, since the mid-1990s.
The Islanders, however, have remained in a no-man’s land since 1992-93, the last time they were considered relevant. That season they got to the Eastern Conference finals, but have since qualified for the playoffs just five times, including their current streak of five straight seasons of watching seemingly everyone else host playoff games, while they have more or less been left wondering if they’d even have a future home in this area.
Luckily for the fan base, which remains as steadfastly loyal despite a series of public relations nightmares that you’d actually have to live through to believe, the arena issue is no longer the 8,000-pound elephant that swallowed both the albatross and the monkey in the room. The Islanders will eventually play at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and perhaps before their scheduled arrival date prior to the 2015-16 season.
But what remains to be seen in the interim is whether or not this franchise can build any momentum going forward. It’s no secret that the Islanders, despite now having a future, are still a financially strapped organization, one that has a very difficult time convincing the rest of the league’s talent to come here, despite the fact that to a man the players who have called Long Island home over the last several years have repeatedly said there is absolutely nothing not to like about the area and the organization, itself.
For his part, Tavares is the poster boy for what is supposed to be right about the Islanders. He’s now a quiet, unassuming 22-year-old, a god in his native Canada, and basically the franchise to the Islanders’ fans. He’s really what connects the old schoolers from the glory years out at the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike to the current crop of younger fans who either were not alive or were too young to remember names like Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Bobby Nystrom and Clark Gillies, to name just a few of what were many.
When he was selected No. 1 overall in the 2009 entry draft, Tavares was viewed as the player that would be shouldered with an incredibly difficult burden, one that likely could only be handled by a player with the correct mental makeup in addition to the type of skills that would deem him worthy of being that first pick.
Tavares has been all of that and more, as both his statistics and behavior illustrate. He’ll one day be the captain of this team, and not because he’s the Islanders’ best player, but because he understands what it’s supposed to mean to be an Islander — a commitment to excellence on the ice as well as a firm understanding of the responsibility one has to the community and the product that is the Islanders off the ice.
There were many who believed that Tavares would skate off into the sunset once his entry level contract ended, because, the opinion makers said, no one in their right mind would ever want to stay on the Island any longer than he was legally obligated to. Tavares would end up in Toronto, his home town, and lead the downtrodden Maple Leafs out of the muck they’ve put themselves in over the last decade. Or he’d go hockey big time and take his tons of talent to Detroit or Chicago or Montreal or Vancouver, places that, many believe, are what true hockey towns are supposed to be about.
It didn’t happen, nor likely ever will.
When Tavares signed a six-year, $33 million extension with the Islanders back in mid-September of 2011 he instantly became as important a player to the fan base as any who came before him — and that includes all of the guys that won multiple Stanley Cup from 1979-80 to 1982-83. He reaffirmed his belief system, one that is in short supply among today’s world of coddled athletes that jump at the first chance to play for a winner and be paid handsomely to do so. He told fans on Long Island that he’d forego a chance at an even bigger payday down the road, and likely with a team way more ready made to win a championship, to stay here and finish what he was asked to start.
And he’s made good on his promise as an individual ever since. He’s been a model citizen as well as an incredibly good hockey player. Statistically, Tavares has become a point-per-game player with no telling how much better he can become. In three full seasons he’s gone from 24 to 29 to 31 goals and 30 to 38 to 50 assists, while along the way contributing greatly to the development of not only Matt Moulson, but also players like Kyle Okposo and the recently departed P.A. Parenteau. And though the recent lockout was monumentally frustrating for everyone involved, Tavares continued his development by playing overseas, amassing 42 points in 28 games for Bern of the Swiss-A league.
Does that mean he’ll come out of the gate fast once the puck drops Saturday against the Devils at the Coliseum? Who’s to say? But logic does seem to suggest that the ceiling on what Tavares can eventually become knows no limits at this point. Should we expect 48 points in 48 games? Why not? He’s given every indication that if he stays healthy he could very well produce a heck of a lot more.
While the Islanders have not made the playoffs with Tavares, they have gotten closer and they have done so without any significant help through free agency. This is the approach a team with an owner who has lost reportedly $250 million over the last decade has been forced to follow. It’s unorthodox to say the least, but find me a hockey expert who disagrees with the fact that the Islanders have positioned themselves for great things down the road and I’ll tell you that person shouldn’t have a job writing about the NHL.
Though the Islanders’ future is no longer in doubt, there’s no guarantee they’ll start spending money before they get to Brooklyn, and even when they get there it’s really unknown if the revenue will come in to the point where owner Charles Wang can feel comfortable that he’s beginning to recoup his losses enough to offset them with additional and significant investments in the on-ice product. All the 25-year lease at the Barclays Center did was guarantee a home. It didn’t assure fiscal wholeness or give Wang the wherewithal to make this team a perennial contender with his wallet.
Which is why the day Tavares was locked up for years was the best thing to happen to this team since the day in 1973 when the Islanders drafted Potvin No. 1 overall. That team, like this one, was a fledgling operation, an expansion club just trying to get a foothold anywhere. The Islanders of today, through actions of their own, are the same second class citizens they were back then, but are now in a different economic age under a much more high-powered microscope.
And it will take building blocks like Tavares and the shrewdness of a general manager without a lot of financial support to get this franchise to the next level.
The Islanders have come full circle, but it remains to be seen if the next decade will be anything close to the meteoric rise the franchise enjoyed in the 1970s.
That’s the legacy No. 91 has inherited. Not the cups and the hero worship, but the laying of the groundwork to get the opportunities to win both in the first place.
But he chose this, which should convince the Islanders and everyone that supports them that they have the right guy in place to help continue to lead this franchise back to what it once was.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
What are your realistic expectations for Tavares and the Islanders during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …