NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — John Tavares can hear the whispers.
They basically all ask the same question: “What’s wrong with him?”
By his lofty standards, Tavares has had an extremely subpar 2015-16 season to this point, and the Islanders (25-16-6, 56 points), despite sitting in a playoff spot if the season ended today, have not been the same team as they were last season.
Through 47 games a year ago, the Isles had 65 points, on their way to 101, their most since 1983-84, the last time they were in the Stanley Cup Final. Maddening inconsistency has plagued the Isles through the first four months of this season, and Tavares has been the poster boy for the problems.
With just 34 points in 44 games, Tavares will take the ice tied for 57th in the league in scoring when the Islanders play their first game following the All-Star break Tuesday at home against Minnesota. The No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft finished last season with a career-high 86 points, just one behind Art Ross Trophy winner Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy, given to the league’s MVP, for the second time in three seasons.
Yet for whatever reason the multi-talented center has looked lost at times during this his seventh NHL season, as he’s currently on pace to put up just 60 points, his fewest in a season that hasn’t featured a work stoppage since he was a rookie in 2009-10.
The question is why. With the exception of a mystery illness that cost him three games earlier in the season, Tavares hasn’t missed any time, which seems to suggest, if he is injured, it’s not something debilitating.
“I’m working as hard as I can,” Tavares told the New York Post before the All-Star Game on Sunday afternoon in Nashville. “I’m as focused as I’ve ever been and as driven to keep getting better and try to find a new level.”
The debate raging around Tavares and the Islanders right now is about accountability. The team isn’t scoring anywhere near as much as it did last season, as evidenced by the fact that it has been held to one goal or less 13 times in its first 47 games.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that we haven’t been the same (offensive) team this year,” Tavares said. “I think a lot of us are going through a lot of ups and downs, certainly myself. A lot of guys will look to me, and you try to handle it as best you can. You’re setting an example. When things aren’t going well, you just have to find a way to work yourself through it.”
Much of the blame for the Isles’ offensive problems have been put on general manager Garth Snow, who seemed fine with the idea of letting his younger players mature instead of investing in some veteran upgrades during the offseason, either via free agency or through trades.
Now while many view being fiscally responsible in a salary cap league as admirable, the fact remained that the Islanders’ offense was dreadful during the first-round playoff loss to Washington last spring, a seven-game defeat that ran New York’s string of consecutive seasons without a postseason series victory to 22.
While the Capitals went out and added players such as T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to their already explosive offense, the Isles basically just re-signed their own, and thus far only Brock Nelson among their young forwards has taken the next step. Players such as Anders Lee and Ryan Strome haven’t become the types of finishers Tavares needs, given his abilities as a playmaker.
The other school of thought is Tavares is supposedly a superstar. It shouldn’t matter who his linemates are. His abilities alone should be enough to elevate the Islanders more than they have, and because of that the buck should stop with him.
“There is so much emotion involved,” Tavares told the Post. “In day to day, you go through so much. It’s just handling your emotions the right way. And we’re staying focused. I think we’ve done a great job of that. Obviously, a lot of people think we haven’t played great, and you look where we are, we’re in a pretty good spot. The race is tight, but we know we still have our best ahead of us and that’s the encouraging part — where we can get to.”
The Islanders find themselves in a tight spot in the Eastern Conference, where nine points separate the third-place Rangers (59) and the 13th-place Philadelphia Flyers (50). The Isles have 35 games left, including 21 on the road. Perhaps their most important stretch will come between Feb. 19 and March 19, when they play 12 of 14 away from Barclays Center.
Also during that stretch is the NHL trade deadline. It remains to be seen if Snow will act or if his star will be left to fend for himself.