He's one of the most anticipated Canadian-born prospects bound for the NHL, expected to go first overall at the entry draft in Montreal next month.
But it wasn't too long ago that the critics weren't so sure about John Tavares. The OHL sniper's draft stock took a slight dip last fall, due in part to too much hockey played, criticism of his skating and defensive play and a need for improvement in his strength and conditioning.
"People talked about my skating and my play away from the puck," Tavares explained to TSN as he arrived in Toronto for this week's NHL Combine. "But I never thought my skating held me back. I wasn't going to dazzle anyone with my speed, but I don't think it held me back. Over the last two years, I thought I was better defensively than anybody thought."
It seems absurd for a player who, at the age of 14, changed the rules to play major junior hockey with exceptional status. But last summer, the blue-chipper knew he had to change his approach. Over the offseason, he focused on his strength and conditioning - and it looks like the gym work is paying off on the ice.
"I was worn down and I was tired," he said. "So I knew that summer was going to be big for me to change a lot of things - not only on the ice but off the ice. That's eating well, sleeping well, taking care of my body and doing all the right things."
The change and conditioning has certainly paid off. The Oakville, Ont., native broke the OHL goal mark of 213 in March and finished with a career total of 215 goals and 218 assists with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights. And of course, Tavares was instrumental in helping Team Canada win the gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championship. After a draining OHL playoff run that saw his London Knights fall to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires, his storied junior career all but likely came to an end.
But before he puts on an NHL jersey on the floor of Montreal's Bell Centre, he must go through one more obstacle - proving the 'nay-sayers' wrong in the strength and conditioning department at the combine.
Once that is out of the way, is there still a preference to which team he wants to play for?
"It doesn't matter, my dream is to play in the National Hockey League," Tavares told TSN. "Ever since I was a little kid, it was always Toronto, Toronto, Toronto. But you grow up and see everyone and where they are, and where they're successful in the game. I just can't wait to be part of a franchise that considers me a piece of the puzzle to win a Stanley Cup."
While Tavares says it doesn't matter where he goes in the NHL, it's no secret who's on the top of Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke's wish list. He called Tavares a player, 'Who's dominated at every level.' And Burke will get first-hand look at the much-heralded blue-chipper when the Leafs - among several other NHL teams - talk to him this week as part of the combine's interview process.
Written with files from TSN reporter Cory Woron.
Click on to TSN.ca on Friday for our fourth annual NHL draft combine blog, along with with news, updates and one-on-one video interviews.