Captain Has Overcome Voids On His Line To Produce Possibly His Best Pro Season

By Jeff Capellini
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With the way this season is shaking out, it’s looking more and more like John Tavares is ready to supplant some household names and become the new face of the NHL.

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Long a great player on a team not ready to take the next step, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft has carried himself like a superstar this season and his young Islanders have responded in kind. This team has become not just a good story about a once-great franchise rising from the ashes, but also has developed into one with championship aspirations. It’s been a long time coming, and Tavares has been the driving force behind it all.

Tavares’ play of late has been especially spectacular and his Islanders haven given no indication that their renaissance season is going to end abruptly as the temperature gets warmer. With three-quarters of the regular season officially in the books, the Islanders (39-20-2) went into play Monday one point off the Eastern Conference lead.

For his part, Tavares is now a serious contender for not only the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL’s most valuable player, but also the Art Ross Trophy, earned by the player who leads the league in scoring at the end of the regular season.

This season’s scoring race has been unlike any over the last decade, as the days of the dominant individual have been replaced by an era of team depth, with many players daring to simply be consistent. Not counting 2012-13, which featured just a 48-game regular season due to a lockout, the Art Ross recipient had amassed at least 104 points every season dating to 2003-04, when Martin St. Louis won the scoring title with just 94.

The way things have gone this season, it appears the winner will have to have a serious late-season surge to challenge even 94 points, let alone the triple-digit totals once posted by players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin. Through Sunday’s games, Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom and Chicago’s Patrick Kane were tied for the league lead with 64 points. Tavares (29 goals, 33 assists) was just two points off the pace.

The scoring race has been a reflection of the standings — highly competitive. There were 16 players within nine points of Backstrom and Kane as of Monday morning, while there were around a dozen teams league-wide in position to at least challenge 100 points by season’s end.

Tavares barely being ahead of point-per-game pace may not scream anything special, but he’s done it with a revolving door of linemates. As everyone knows, the Isles took a risk last season when they traded for Thomas Vanek, and while Tavares was a production machine with the big Austrian on his wing, the Isles were forced to deal Vanek at the deadline when it became apparent he didn’t want to sign long-term.

General manager Garth Snow did tremendous work over the summer putting together the team you’ve seen this season, but the one glaring hole that wasn’t filled was the other winger to play with Tavares and Kyle Okposo. And once the 2014-15 season started, head coach Jack Capuano filled that role by committee, offering chances to Cory Conacher, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey.

On top of that, Tavares lost the services of Okposo coming out of the All-Star break due to a reported eye injury.

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Instead of trying to do it all himself, Tavares quickly found chemistry on a newly formed line with Bailey and Anders Lee, so much so Capuano may be hard-pressed to break them up when Okposo returns, which could happen at the earliest in mid-March.

Tavares has five goals and 11 points is his last six games, and has 23 points in 18 games — and that doesn’t include the four goals he scored in the All-Star game in Columbus on Jan. 25. Even during Sunday night’s 4-0 loss to Vancouver, with the Isles performing every bit like it was their fifth game in seven days, Tavares was arguably the best player on the ice, firing six shots on goal and setting up numerous other scoring chances.

Lee, who is fast-becoming a Calder Trophy candidate, has 13 points in his last 12 games, while Bailey, who has long been in the fans’ doghouse, has seven in his last eight.

The Islanders were constructed so well by Snow they are 15-6 in games in which Tavares has been held without a point, but any notion that this team can still be all it can be without No. 91 doing his thing is foolish.

He not only looks the part, but Tavares plays the part of top gun and captain like its second nature. He remains one of the toughest players to knock off the puck in the NHL, sees the ice as well as anyone and may have the best hands in the business.

As far as his statistical value to the Islanders goes, it’s hard to appropriately do it justice. His 62 points are 18 better than Okposo and 24 more than third leading scorer Ryan Strome. His 29 goals are 10 more the Lee and 13 more than Brock Nelson, who has just one in his last 21 games. His 24 power play points are eight more than Okposo and 10 more than three others, and not only does he lead the Isles in shots (205), he also has the club’s top shooting percentage (14.1).

After putting up a career-high 81 points, including 50 assists, during the 2011-12 season, Tavares was a Hart Trophy finalist during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, registering 47 points in 48 games. Due in large part to his hard work, the Islanders made the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, ultimately losing in six games in the opening round to Pittsburgh.

The 24-year-old center racked up 66 points in 59 games last season before a knee injury during the Sochi Olympics knocked him out for the rest of the season.

Fully healthy physically but perhaps a little gun-shy mentally, Tavares was forced to navigate through some rough patches earlier this season. But he never stopped playing the type of game that has resonated across the NHL. And as a result, he’s now in position to lead the Islanders to their best regular-season point total since the “drive for five” ended with the Stanley Cup Final loss to Edmonton in 1984 and perhaps the franchise’s first playoff series win since 1993.

So with all due respect to the supremely talented Johnny Gaudreau, there’s only one “Johnny Hockey,” and he plays nowhere near Calgary.

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Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet