UNIONDALE, NY – John Tavares is in the midst of a transformation from superstar in waiting to legitimate NHL frontman. Entering Saturday the New York Islanders centre trailed only reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner Steven Stamkos in goals and, if this was a regular 82-game season, would be on pace to score more than 50.
"What hasn't he done?" asks teammate Casey Cizikas rhetorically. "He's a leader on our team. He's done everything possible to help us win and, you know, watching him out on the ice it's fun. I'm almost a fan on the bench watching him out on the ice. He does all the right things. He's unbelievable."
Tavares has been on a path to stardom since being picked first overall by the Islanders in the 2009 draft. And his offensive numbers have been on the rise in each of his first three campaigns. His goal total went from 24 to 29 and then 31 last season while his point total jumped from 54 to 67 and then 81. He accomplished all this while playing for a woebegone Islanders side that didn't crack the 80-point plateau in any of those years.
New York once again faces an uphill battle to make the playoffs this season although that has not stopped Tavares from breaking out. Part of the success is simply his natural evolution, but the 22-year-old also notes he has made a specific post-lockout adjustment.
SHOOTING EARLY AND OFTEN
"I definitely just tried to work on shooting pucks from a lot of different areas," he explained. "When I've had the most success is when I'm getting the puck off quickly and having a quick release so that's something I really wanted to focus on and know, with how fast the game is and how good and quick goaltenders are, the faster you can get pucks off and on net how much more successful and better chance I think you'll have."
Tavares has recorded at least one shot on goal in all 21 games this season. He failed to get a puck on net in four of his final eight games last year. Overall, Tavares has recorded 82 shots on target this season, which is second only to Minnesota's Zach Parise. Last year, Tavares tied for 10th in that category.
"I wanted to get back to shooting and what I've done well for my whole life and it's nice to be able to keep contributing and keep wanting to build on that and be more consistent," Tavares said.
'A LONG WAY TO GO'
Islanders head coach Jack Capuano has his own theory for why Tavares has taken a big step forward, noting the Mississauga, Ont. native is much better without the puck although Tavares believes there is still plenty of room to improve in that respect.
"I still think I've got a long way to go," Tavares said. "I know I've put a lot of effort into that. I've realized how important it is and how much more opportunity I'll get with the puck when I'm better without it. When I'm doing the right things in my own zone and through the neutral zone and even when pucks are turned over in the offensive zone getting myself into a good position and being on the right side of the puck defensively often you can create turnovers and transitioning opportunities.
"I know I can still be a lot better and there's still always room to improve, but, for sure, I think it's improved a lot."
The improvement has led to more playing time for Tavares, who is averaging 21:40 of ice time each game, which is fifth among all NHL forwards and up from the 20:34 he logged a year ago.
The players inside the Islanders locker room aren't surprised the budding superstar has been able to make the alterations to his game so quickly.
"It's pretty impressive his focus," said linemate Brad Boyes. "That's the biggest thing I notice from him when I look at him and other guys. His focus is some of the best I've seen.
"We were at practice the other day and just playing a little game and he wanted to win, he's battling and he's doing what he can, getting a little fired up, but that's just an example of his personality and what he does."
YEARNING FOR PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE
But all the losing has taken its toll on Tavares, whose current contract will keep him in Islander blue and orange through 2018.
"Sometimes when you're not getting that secondary scoring I think Johnny would be the first to tell you sometimes he tries to do too much, but again you look for that in a player, you look for that guy who wants to do everything he can to help you win," said Capuano. "I don't worry about Johnny trying to do too much, because a lot of the times he does get the job done for us and we need other guys to feed off his work ethic and the way he plays the game."
The Islanders enter Saturday sitting 12th in the Eastern Conference, having dropped the first three games of a crucial seven-game homestand.
"It's great that some things have gone well and production-wise for me I keep improving, but ultimately we want to win games," Tavares, an alternate captain with the Islanders, said. "We want to get in the playoffs and that's what you want to be a part of and really get that experience of playing in the Stanley Cup Finals and that's what you always dream about and play for so, yeah, at times it can be frustrating, not getting the wins and results we want, but I know we got a good group in here and we're working towards that and we push each other every day and I like where we're headed."