John Tavares has continued to evolve his game, even as he grows into veteran role

Since his days in minor hockey, Tavares has used his unique talent to evolve into one of the best players of his era. At age-33, he's still going strong.

John Tavares was billed as an offensive prodigy when he was 13 years old. Two decades later, Tavares remains one of the best players of his generation, captaining the Toronto Maple Leafs with no discernible holes in his game.

Since his days as a phenom with the vaunted Toronto Marlboros AAA program, carving up opponents nearly two years his elder, few prospects have shone as brightly as Tavares. Over the past 20-odd years, only Connor McDavid matches the exceptional levels reached by a young Tavares in the years prior to their coronation as top OHL selections.

Fast forward to the present, and Tavares is now rapidly inching closer to the 1,000-point career milestone, a benchmark he's likely to pass by December that would almost certainly cement a reservation in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s worth tracking the 20-year evolution of one of the NHL’s marquee players, and an individual that has exceeded the nearly unrivalled hype surrounding him.

Tavares emerges as international minor hockey phenom with elite hockey IQ

Tavares separated himself from his peers from an early age, playing a year above his 1990 age cohort and establishing himself as the best player in the 1989-born Ontario class by some distance. There was speculation that Logan Couture or Mark Katic would go first overall in the 2005 OHL Draft, but Tavares was so prodigious with a burgeoning national reputation that he forced the Canadian Hockey League to create the exceptional player rule.

During his time with the Marlboros organization — which graduated Rick Nash and Jason Spezza before him, McDavid, Jack and Quinn Hughes after him — Tavares honed his skills on Sam Gagner’s backyard rink, designed by Sam’s father, Dave, a veteran of 946 NHL games. Contrary to the myths about Canadiana, there aren’t many outdoor rinks readily available in the country’s largest cities and surrounding suburbs, so this is where Tavares honed his otherworldly hockey intelligence. Tavares is also the nephew of John Tavares, the all-time National Lacrosse League scoring leader who also works as a math teacher in Mississauga.

PETERBOROUGH, ON - NOVEMBER 6: John Tavares #91 of the Oshawa Generals gets set for a faceoff in a game against the Peterborough Petes on November 6, 2008 at the Peterborough Memorial Centre in Peterborough, Ontario. The Petes defeated the Generals 10-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Tavares has been a dominant force since long before his time with the Maple Leafs. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

During his final minor hockey season, Tavares posted 91 goals and 158 points in 72 games, then played 20 games for the Milton Merchants of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, recording 28 points against players up to six years his senior. Tavares was so much better than his peers at an early age because of his hockey intelligence, his shot and his ability to work his way into the slot.

“He had an ability to get to the net, through traffic, that was probably something that carried over from playing lacrosse,” Tavares’ minor hockey coach, James Naylor, said in 2018. “He always had great ability to anticipate the play. Every game there’d be at least a couple of times when I’d wonder how he got so wide open for a scoring chance. You see that with [Alexander] Ovechkin and it really jumps out, that type of hockey sense. It’s rare with stars in the NHL but John had that at age 12. That’s not stuff that comes with hard work. That’s just vision and awareness and the ability to process the game so much faster than everyone else.”

Shattering Gretzky’s record as an OHL wunderkind

Tavares proved the Canadian Hockey League right as a truly exceptional player, scoring 45 goals and 77 points in 65 games as an underager. For his next act, Tavares shattered Wayne Gretzky’s record for most goals by a 16-year-old, lighting the lamp 72 times in a 134-point campaign during the 2006-07 season.

How did he do it?

“He’s got that radar when he’s around the net,” Oshawa Generals head coach Brad Selwood said of Tavares to Lynn Zinser of The New York Times in November 2007. “He’s so focused. He just pounces. He just does whatever he can to get it in the net.”

Tavares’ ability to slip past his man was reminiscent of a fox-in-the-box striker timing his run against an offsides trap in soccer. In virtually every profile of Tavares leading up to the draft — and for the majority of his Islanders tenure — there was a constant critique of his substandard skating. Tavares could score prolifically because of his innate hockey sense, his ability to box out defenders, his hockey IQ, his quick release and his relentless, competitive nature rather than the all-world speed that was evident to the untrained eye when evaluating McDavid.

“Anticipation is such an underrated skill, and his anticipation offensively and defensively is like nobody's I've ever seen," Selwood told Sports Illustrated in 2006, comparing Tavares to Gordie Howe. "He does things I don't think have ever been done. Gordie was a wonderful man and an all-time great, but he could tell you why he did what he did. This kid just does it instinctually. It's scary."

Look at the flick of the wrist: Tavares’ shot profile with the Islanders

All data from, bolded seasons indicate Hart Trophy finalist

Tavares entered the league as a prototypical NHL power forward and worked tirelessly to improve his defensive game as the Islanders lagged behind the rest of the league. He relied on his natural scoring ability inside the slot for the vast majority of his Islanders tenure.

Anders Lee was Tavares’ most common linemate during his final two seasons with the Islanders, while Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey were his common linemates during his early tenure with the team. While each of those players have built strong careers to varying degrees, they each represented similar strengths — not as magnified as Tavares’s of course — and weaknesses to the superstar pivot. Lee is one of the slowest skaters in a top-six role and none of his teammates really pushed Tavares to become a weapon in transition.

Tavares’ skating vastly improved during the 2015 season when he earned his second Hart Trophy nomination and with gradual but concerted effort, today Tavares offers plus-speed for the Maple Leafs in transition, cutting through the neutral zone while featuring on one of the fastest teams in the league.

This goal in 2015 against his future club perhaps best exemplifies his growth with the Islanders. Deceptively quick, Tavares is allowed to get a few strides off unimpeded, then uses his huge frame, puck skills and patience to score a highlight-reel goal. It is extremely difficult to dislodge the puck from a power forward with a head of steam and this was one of the earliest signs of his significant improvement as a skater.

Tavares eliminates slap shots from Maple Leafs’ shot diet

Tavares naturally had to adapt his shot profile upon signing with the Maple Leafs in the summer of 2018, learning new systems and a new role on the power play, moved to the net-front initially, as opposed to the half-wall with the Islanders. He has played the bumper role on the power play at times but what’s become apparent is that Tavares has simplified his shot profile, while rounding out the rest of his game in Toronto.

Toronto’s captain has eliminated slap shots almost entirely and works to get his terrific wrist shot whenever possible. Most NHL players score primarily from their wrist shot, but there are anomalies — Steven Stamkos scored nearly a third of his goals off his slap shot last year, for example — but it’s Tavares’ weapon of choice. He’s one of the NHL’s best players at boxing out opposing defenders and with god-given hand-eye coordination, he is often looking to tip pucks from the point.

“I'm going to keep my eye on him to make sure that he doesn't keep buzzing,” Devils defenseman Brendan Smith — Tavares’ minor hockey teammate with the Marlboros — told Yahoo Sports last November. “He's one of those guys who's an ultimate pro. He eats well, he takes care of his body, he practices hard, he's done it ever since I was a young kid with him. You've got to tip your hat to him because it's pretty impressive what he's done."

Nearly unmatched chemistry with Nylander allows Tavares to evolve into final stage

Tavares and William Nylander have been virtually inseparable at 5-on-5 and their opponents often view them as a duo when game-planning against Toronto’s star forwards. Keeping up and thriving with Nylander, a dazzling skater with powerful strides, is a testament to Tavares’ significantly improved skating ability.

“You know, it's obviously an area of mine I've always had to work really hard at,” Tavares said recently to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox about his improved skating. “It has never come easy or natural. But obviously glad to continue to make it a strength of mine."

Tavares and Nylander have been stapled together through the 2023-24 season and have formed Toronto’s best line, regardless of their third linemate, an open audition between Max Domi, Matthew Knies and Tyler Bertuzzi. Through nine games, Toronto is controlling 57 percent of the expected goals when Tavares is on the ice at 5-on-5, the best share percentage of his career via Natural Stat Trick.

“The combination of the two. It's been there all season, it's not like it just showed up two days ago,” Kings head coach Todd McLellan said of the Tavares-Nylander connection prior to Tuesday’s game.

“The two of them have found each other, they play off each other real well. Tavares in the faceoff circle, they start with the puck an awful lot. And that's really important for them, they don't waste a lot of energy chasing it back to their end. Anybody who is going on that wing seems to augment the two of them, so it's not just about one individual with that line, it's the three and how they play off of each other.”

“Johnny, just day in and day out, he always does the right things on and off the ice,” Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Giordano said prior to Tuesday’s game. “His work ethic and then just being able to make those little plays again. People don't give him enough credit for how many little plays he makes in tight areas and then faceoffs, all those little things, important parts of the game. I think him and Willy have been great together since I've been here. Willy, he's a gamebreaker. He's one of the guys on our team we can look to him, ‘Tone (Auston Matthews). They've obviously been great to start.”

Billed as the potential Next One two years before he could even play in the OHL, Tavares has more than lived up to the hype while his offensive profile continues to grow. There are no holes left in Tavares’ game as he continues to extend the latter stages of his prime well into his 30s.