As John Tavares spoke at the media event, he sounded mature, committed, driven. He shot down negative perceptions of the New York Islanders and lauded owner Charles Wang and general manager Garth Snow. He was unafraid to speak of the Stanley Cup and restoring the franchise to glory.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I go to the rink every day with a big smile on my face.”
But this wasn’t Monday, when he was named captain of the Islanders. This was exactly two years ago.
The news hadn’t broken yet, but Tavares was about to sign a six-year, $33 million contract extension.
This was when he was still just shy of his 21st birthday and the Islanders were coming off a 14th-place finish in the Eastern Conference, one point out of the basement. This was before the Islanders ended their playoff drought, the old Coliseum went from empty to full and he became a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
The Islanders are cool again. They have a young, up-and-coming team. They scared the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round last season. They’re playing the Rangers at Yankee Stadium in January and moving to Brooklyn in two years. It’s easy to say nice, hopeful things about them now.
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But Tavares loved the Islanders before they were cool, loyal to them for drafting him first overall in 2009, willing to climb from the bottom. He said nice, hopeful things when it was hard.
Which is why the ‘C’ is so fitting. And just a step.
“They’ve showed a lot of faith in me, so I thought it would be great to be a part of bringing the Islanders back to what they were once upon a time,” said Tavares last week in New York. “To be a part of something like that, it would be something pretty special. It’s a great challenge, a great journey, and it’s been a great ride so far.”
“We’re still right in it,” he added. “We still haven’t accomplished a whole lot. We still have a lot to prove.”
* * * * *
Not long ago, Islanders players could hit the Chipotle near the airport on the Island and order their burrito bowls in anonymity. The dynasty days of the early 1980s were history, not tradition. Four straight Stanley Cups? The Islanders hadn’t made the playoffs for five straight seasons. Worse, they had been a laughingstock for so long in so many ways.
“I don’t think anyone had a clue who we were,” said winger Matt Moulson. “Then you start winning and people are like, ‘Who are these guys?’ ”
As the Islanders made the playoffs and made noise in the first round last season, Nassau Coliseum starting filling up. It started rocking. Players started being asking for autographs and pictures at Chipotle and other places. But in a way, even that was humbling.
“Hey, you’re Matt Moulson!”
“Hey, you’re Kyle Okposo!”
“Hey, John Tavares is a Hart finalist!”
“Our best player, John Tavares, I don’t think he started getting recognition until last year,” said Moulson, Tavares’ left winger. “People are asking me, ‘Oh, how did he have this breakthrough season?’ I said, ‘Well, he had 81 points in 82 games the year before. He was pretty good then.’ ”
This is an interesting time on the Island – and a good time for Tavares to take over as captain for Mark Streit, who left for the Philadelphia Flyers. People are watching now. People expect something now. Tavares is coming into his own now.
Who are these guys? Why is Tavares so good?
More important: What can these guys become? How good can Tavares be?
The Islanders made the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But they made it as the eighth seed in the East in a lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule and lost to the Penguins in six games. They still haven’t won a playoff series since 1993.
Now the NHL has been realigned. The Islanders will need to finish in the top four or five in the Metropolitan Division, competing with the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. They will have to do it over a full, 82-game schedule, and they won’t surprise anyone.
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“Things are only going to get harder from here,” Tavares said. “We need to understand that challenge and have that focus and that understanding. Now that we finally took that step to the playoffs, it’s not just going to come every year. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of commitment from everybody.”
The Islanders will lean on Evgeni Nabokov in goal, even though he’s 38. They will lean on Travis Hamonic and Lubomir Visnovsky on defense, now that Streit is gone. They will lean on Moulson and Okposo up front, along with newcomers Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck.
But mostly, they will lean on Tavares, their No. 1 centerman. Every season, he has improved – 24 goals and 54 points, then 29 and 67, then 31 and 81. Last season, he put up 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games, which translate to about 48 goals and 80 points in 82 games.
Like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, young superstar centermen who have captained fallen powers back to the top, Tavares has the work ethic to go with his talent. He pays attention to detail and makes others around him better. He turns 23 on Sept. 20, but he’s so serious and so grounded and speaks so well, you’d think he was turning 32.
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Tavares thinks the Islanders have found their identity. They want to play with speed. They want to play with the puck. They want to be hard physically. But Tavares also watches the elite teams in the playoffs and sees what it takes to win the Cup. He is not fooled. He is not afraid, either.
He embraces the challenge. Always has.
“It’s about everybody buying in, understanding you’re going to have to overcome a lot and stick together,” Tavares said. “I think that our team is really starting to come together now, understanding where everyone fits in, their roles, and how that’s going to contribute to the team, the sacrifices that are made. More and more, we’re understanding that.
“We’ve just got to keep raising our level of play. Our focus, our mindset, just has to keep getting better, and that’s what the great teams have, the great players have. No matter what’s thrown in their way, they find a way to overcome it.”
* * * * *
One clue about the new captain might be how he speaks about the old one.
“We lost Mark and what he brought to the table on and off the ice,” Tavares said. “He was a great leader for us. He really had a lot of respect in our locker room and was great with our guys and was a great captain for us. I know I’m going to really miss him.”
Classy, yes. But keep listening.
“It’s going to take everyone to step up in their own way to kind of fill that void, that leadership and that presence he brought, and obviously the production he brought was great as well,” Tavares said.
Humble, yes. But keep listening.
“Mark was a guy that …”
Tavares’ voice trailed off. What was the biggest compliment he could give?
“I’ve never seen someone hate losing more than Mark,” Tavares said. “We lost a lot of sleep over the years together because of how much he hated to lose, how driven he is as a player.”
It’s Tavares’ team now. The Islanders can sleep well.
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