By Daniel Friedman
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John Tavares has had several coming-out parties since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009, but the 2014-15 season — his sixth in the NHL — figured to be the biggest one yet.
The Islanders’ top center and captain finished second to Jamie Benn for the Art Ross Trophy last season, racking up a career-high 86 points and emerging as a playoff hero of sorts with his dramatic overtime winner in Game 3 during the first-round loss to Washington.
He was ready to be embraced by the hockey world as a true generational talent, mentioned with the same reverence as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Steven Stamkos. His banner season was to be a testament to his progression as a player, a sign that the days ahead were, somehow, going to be even better than the ones that had passed by.
But that version of Tavares has gone missing this season. He essentially hasn’t been seen since April 25, 2015; coincidentally, the last time the Islanders were competitive for 60 minutes of a hockey game.
That, of course, was the date of Game 6 of the series against the Capitals. Tavares set the tone by opening the scoring, and the Isles went on to force a deciding game.
Tavares and the Isles came into this season with heightened expectations, but to this point he’s failed to meet them, struggling to produce and find that other gear on a consistent basis. He’s currently on pace for just 59 points and has just 10 in his past 20 contests.
The culprit here seems to be anyone but him, according to just about everyone you talk to around these parts. It’s impressive how far many will go to make every excuse in the book for a player that’s supposed to be held to a higher standard.
It’s time we stopped doing that and accepted the fact that Tavares simply has not been good enough this season. If his linemates aren’t good enough, explain to me how he recored 86 points with basically the same ones last season.
Thomas Vanek is always the go-to example, because of Tavares’ production playing with him two years ago. With that in mind, I decided to take a closer look at the history books and went game-by-game to see the difference with and without Vanek.
In 54 games with Vanek, Tavares had 60 points. Fast-forward to last season and guess how many points he had over his final 54 games last season? OK, I’ll tell you. He had 61.
The 60 points he recorded with Vanek might’ve looked sexier, but they count just the same on the scoresheet. He was on pace for 91 before he got injured two years ago, just five more than he had last season. That’s not exactly a sizable difference. Maybe it translates into one or two more wins, but the impact is more or less identical.
Tavares is supposed to make the players around him better; not the other way around. He’s supposed to be the guy who doesn’t need star wingers and allows other lines to have more depth.
And besides, the offense has actually been better of late and he’s still struggling.
I could understand if he was producing the way he usually does and you were telling me that with a star winger he could get 90 or even 100 points, but he’s not even on pace for 70 right now. He’s nowhere near that.
Even on Tuesday night, he got an assist but passed up shots and was muscled off the puck unlike what we typically see from him. We’ve seen that far too many times over the first half of the season.
This team lives and dies with Tavares, just as it always has. That’s the case no matter how much talent and depth there is on the roster. If the Islanders are to be competitive in the playoffs, Tavares stepping up has to be part of the equation.
I don’t know if he’s playing injured or if he’s got something on his mind, but he has not been the centerpiece he’s been since he was drafted. Make all the excuses for him that you want, but the bottom line is he needs to be better.
That’s not to say that others don’t need to step up as well, nor is it to suggest that I would be opposed to bringing in another winger, but Tavares has to be held responsible for his performance.
He’s supposed to be able to produce regardless of the circumstances.
He’s the guy who turned PA Parenteau, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes into viable linemates and effective forwards. He has all the talent in the world and a better cast now than he’s ever had to work with (I’m talking about the offense as a whole, not one or two individual players). There are no excuses.
Am I being too harsh or far-fetched? Not really. We cannot treat Tavares like we would any other player. He’s a cut above nearly everyone, and therefore expectations of him should be higher.
I have little doubt that Tavares will bounce back at some point and that the moment that happens everyone will flood my timeline with “still think he sucks Friedman?” comments. But that’s not my point here.
My point is, Tavares is better than what he’s shown. And not only that, his performance thus far has has been flat-out pathetic by his standards.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @bardownhowitzer