By Steve Silverman
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Some observers might call John Tavares something of an interloper.
Just what was he doing with Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as a finalist last season for the NHL’s Hart Trophy? (If it was any other professional sports league, we would say the MVP award, but the NHL has named each of its trophies and we fall right in line with their practices.)
Tavares did not win the award — a late surge by Ovechkin helped him turn around a miserable season — but Tavares announced himself as one of the game’s elite players in 2013.
He was solid before last season, but he has turned into something special. The 2013-14 season is about Tavares getting even better. Superstars are not stagnant. They are constantly working at their craft to get better.
Tavares is in a group that includes Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks. He is the kind of player who can not only carry his team for a game or two, but can turn a season around with his talent and his understanding of the game.
Tavares has plenty of physical ability, but it’s his intelligence and his attention to detail that has allowed him to improve so dramatically in his first four years in the NHL.
He set a tone in 2011-12 with 31 goals and 81 points, but it was last season that Islanders fans saw how good he could be. There was a lot more depth to his game than there had been before as he scored 28 goals and 47 points in the 48-game season.
Notice how his goal-scoring went up significantly last season. Instead of trying to show that he belonged in the NHL, Tavares took over games in 2013. He didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, most notably himself.
He played with eyes wide open, saw openings that few others could find and then exploited them. While he was getting more decisive on the offensive end, he improved dramatically as a defensive player.
No, he was not a shot-blocking machine and he didn’t start laying out fearsome body-checks like a latter-day version of Clark Gillies, but his positioning and instincts became honed. He knew what opponents wanted to do and he put himself in a position to make every opponent have to work that much harder to complete a simple pass or stickhandle up the ice.
Those improvements were the main reason the Islanders became a surprise playoff team in 2013. Tavares got help from Matt Moulson, Brad Boyes, Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky, but there was no doubt that the Islanders rode Tavares for all he was worth.
They are going to need an offense that can score in bunches if they are going to make the playoffs in a much tougher Eastern Conference that now includes the Detroit Red Wings, the NHL’s most consistent team over the last 20 years.
Tavares is going to have to consistently dominate if the Islanders are going to become a playoff team again.
He is the MVP favorite going into the season because no player means more to his team than Tavares. This team would be a bottom-dweller without him.
When Tavares is in full flight, the Islanders could give any team in the East — including the Penguins and Boston Bruins — a real battle.
He has a chance to climb to an even higher level this season.
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