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Siegel: Tavares could emerge as Canadian darkhorse in Sochi

Jonas Siegel
2/12/2014 12:20:33 PM
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SOCHI, Russia – Since that highly-anticipated day in early January when he was officially named to the Canadian Olympic team, the nerves have not stopped pumping for John Tavares.

"I think I've had 'em for about a month," he said. "As much as the travel's been tough, I think [you're] losing a lot of sleep just because you're so anxious and so excited."

Four years ago in Vancouver, it was a then-21-year-old Jonathan Toews who emerged from the lower ranks of a powerhouse roster to steer Canada to gold. Nerves aside, could the 23-year-old Tavares prove a similar dark-horse in the Canadians' bid for back-to-back golds in Sochi?

Save for the incomparable Sidney Crosby, no Canadian player enters the tournament with more impressive recent credentials than the captain of the New York Islanders. Tucked just behind Crosby and eventual winner Alex Ovechkin in the 2013 Hart Trophy race, Tavares has only continued his rise up the NHL ranks this season. He is now third in league scoring after a 20-point month of January which matched Phil Kessel for the league lead.

In fact, only Kessel has more points (28) in 2014 than the Toronto native (22), who is on pace for a career-high 33 goals and 91 points.

"I think my mindset is just to go out there and play the best I can and contribute where I'm asked in the role I'm asked to play in," said Tavares, who, like Toews in Vancouver, is among the younger Canadian Olympians in Sochi. "If that leads to more opportunity, responsibility that's great, but at the end of the day, it's about winning one game [Thursday] and building off that and going onto the next one and hopefully, obviously to win a gold medal."
 
Toews was Canada's 13th forward at the outset of the Games in 2010 and though Tavares enters the tournament on a first-unit power-play – alongside Crosby and Chris Kunitz – he is stationed to start Thursday's opener against Norway on a prospective bottom forward unit with fellow Olympic rookie Jamie Benn and vet Patrice Bergeron.

With dangerous offensive weaponry, experience on the big ice and versatility, Tavares looks to be a prime option to rise in the lineup if chemistry elsewhere fails to materialize. The Canadian coaching staff, led by Mike Babcock, has promised that patience in that respect will be short.

"It's a competitive environment," Babcock said, "and we expect our guys to compete for their ice-time."
 
Though he has yet to appear at the Olympics, Tavares does hold excellent credentials in past appearances on the international stage. He has amassed 16 goals in 22 world championship games, adding 15 points alone in the 2009 world juniors.

During the most recent NHL lockout, he produced 17 goals and 42 points in 28 games with Bern of the Swiss league. A natural centre, it was during that stint overseas that he played mostly left wing, offering Babcock versatility with a glut of centres on the roster. He even advised Tavares of that possibility during the summer orientation camp in Calgary.

"Those are all things that I can draw on, experience-wise," Tavares said of his international forays. "I think the more you've played on [the big ice], the more you've been in it, the better understanding you have."

For Tavares to snatch more opportunity, he'll have to make the most of limited ice. Canadian executive director Steve Yzerman said earlier this week that the greatest challenge facing his group of Olympians was not the larger Olympic ice dimensions but the difficulty of making the most of a shrunken role.

"He really has to park his ego at the door," said assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, speaking generally about the roster at large. "You have to understand that when it's your time and it's your time to go, go! Don't sit there and wonder what the coach is thinking, don't sit there and think 'am I going to get on the ice?, what's my family thinking?', when it's your turn to go, go.

"Whatever you've got, give us quality and forget about the quantity. You've got to park the quality right up front and you've got to forget about the quantity because it's not going to be the same. No player is going to play the minutes that he plays in the NHL. It isn't even going to be close. You've got to park it."

Toews averaged fewer than 15 minutes in Vancouver and yet finished as the tournament's top forward and Canada's leading scorer. He also helped shut down Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin in a dominant quarterfinal win over Russia.

"There's no time to look around and be wide-eyed," Toews advised of his mindset in 2010. "You've got to go out there and play and just let it happen. That's what the Olympics is all about. There's not much time to adjust."

A potent weapon, both as a sniper and playmaker – he is nearing a career-high in assists – Tavares can also be of aid to the Canada power play. The first overall pick from the 2009 draft is tied for fourth in power play points this season, trailing only Crosby, Ovechkin and the league-leader, Nicklas Backstrom.

"You understand the responsibility of coming here and having to accept your role," Tavares said. "So you'll be ready whenever your name's called to go over [the boards] and execute."

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