'We have a great future here'
Former top pick John Tavares denies rumors that he wants off Long Island
by Adam Wodon/Web Editor
Sidney Crosby has done it. Patrick Kane has done it. To a large extent, Alexander Ovechkin has done it.
Three high-end draft picks have turned their franchises around. The Islanders and John Tavares, who was chosen No. 1 overall in 2009, are still waiting for it to happen to them.
Of course, there's a lot more to it than just Tavares. Crosby has Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, among others; Kane has Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith, et al; Ovechkin has Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.
Therein lies the rub. Tavares welcomes the pressure that goes with being the top pick, and is dying to help turn the Islanders around. But his supporting cast is still growing, amid setbacks by injury. In late January, the Isles were just two points out of the basement in the Eastern Conference with a 15-25-7 record.
"It puts him in a bigger role; he wants to be that guy," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano. "We can't control the injuries and we've had a lot of them. He's handled it real well and I don't think it's hurt his development."
True enough, Tavares is headed towards a 30-goal season. Though the numbers might not seem al that different, in every other way, it’s been better. The Islanders have been hurt more severely by injuries and missed games this season, and Tavares is still going forward with his numbers. Beyond the numbers, he's also demonstrably better on the ice.
"I'm really starting to find my way and know what it's like to play in this league every day," Tavares said. "I'm trying to be consistent, but I feel I've made big steps in many areas."
Says Capuano, "He's getting better every day. There's a lot of pressure on Johnny, but as a 20-year old he's really come into his own. His work ethic, he's a student of the game ... and he's really driving his legs right now."
Tavares has found the transition hard, but not unexpected. "You prepare for it as best you can and talk to as many people as you can, but you really don't understand it or learn what it takes until you go through it day to day," he said.
It seems the biggest area of improvement for Tavares has been his skating and strength on the puck. He always took pride in those areas, but it's another level entirely in the NHL.
"He's stronger; he's going to the net, his awareness is better and his overall game is really good," said former four-time Cup-winning Islanders center Butch Goring, now a TV commentator for the team. "I think his progress is just about where it ought to be. ... They're all trying to survive. There's no one pulling anybody. They're all trying to figure out their game. And that makes it a longer process.
"(Hard times are) not experiences you particularly want but I think, in the long run, they're good for you."
Tavares worked with skating instructors Dawn Braid and Richard Clark in the offseason, well-established mentors who were recommended by friend and now- teammate Matt Moulson when Tavares was still a 14-year-old.
"They've been instrumental in the last couple years in developing a system for me to get much faster," Tavares said. "You just focus on certain areas. We work on a lot of technical stuff to make me a more efficient skater than I was. There's always stuff to correct. In the summer, we work on one target and stay away from the general stuff. Then, in the gym ... whether it's quick starts or more powerful strides, or a good base or core."
The relationship with Moulson is well-known now. Moulson came to camp last year just looking for a job and the pair, who knew each other growing up even though Moulson is older, helped each other out.
"I think it's helped both of us," Tavares said. "It's a special friendship we have. He came into camp last year and no one expected him to do much. But we skated, we knew each other's games and we made a good impression, and when we got to play together, we had success.
And the relationship off the ice helped as well.
"He's so good in front of the net," Tavares said. "Batting pucks down, finding loose pucks -- he's a helluva battler in the corner. He doesn't lose battles ... and he's never satisfied, like me, always working on things and improving."
The friends lived together last year. Now, Moulson is married, but they still live across from each other in the same apartment complex. Neither is ready yet for a house.
"He lives his life as a professional," Moulson said of Tavares. "He's been dealing with media scrutiny since he was 14. So it's an easy adjustment for him. Sometimes it's tough with how well the team is doing and the pressure -- but seeing him develop over the last two years and help take some of the pressure off him, it allows him to go out and perform."
There was a rumor earlier this season that Tavares was unhappy with the Islanders. The team was mired in a dreadful, long losing streak, a lot of the supporting cast was hurt, and the Nassau Coliseum – in dire need of being replaced to begin with -- wasn't drawing flies.
But Tavares says that was all nonsense.
"I don't know why there's talk of me not wanting to be here," he said. "I love it. I want to be here a long time. I'm looking forward to it. We have a great future here. I'm excited to be an Islander.
“We haven't had as much success as we'd have liked this season. I know we made good progress last year. But we're still moving forward and playing much better hockey, and I don't want to be anywhere else but here."
Moulson backs up his friend.
"I don't think we've ever talked about that or mentioned that," Moulson said. "I think we both want to be here and both be a part of getting this team back to winning and getting in the playoffs. And I know he takes great pride in being the first overall pick. I know how he is, and I know he'd never think like that. To him that would be taking the chintzy way out. That's not who he is. He takes pride in trying to get this team back to winning. He wants that on his shoulders."
And Tavares said he has no issues with playing at the Coliseum for now.
"It's weird, you learn to make this your home," he said. "You learn to love this place. As nice as a state-of-the-art facility would be, and we do need one, you learn to make memories here. And we get treated great."
Of course, there's plenty of history in that building -- four straight Stanley Cups, numerous retired jerseys of hockey legends like Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Clark Gillies and the Islanders' all-time leading goal scorer, Mike Bossy.
"'Boss' was in here the other day, just talking to all the guys," Tavares said. "He's really easy to get along with. He's been good to me. And you see guys around like (Bobby) Nystrom and ‘Trots’ -- he's a great guy.
“You can really feel it, and you really get the sense we want to bring that back."