Islanders need to surround John Tavares with more help

John Tavares looks on in the first period

John Tavares looks on in the first period before a face off against the Philadelphia Flyers at Nassau Coliseum. (Feb. 18, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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Hey, stuff happens, especially with young teams. Sometimes it's two steps forward, then one step back, off a cliff, into a canyon, bouncing off rocky outcroppings along the way.

So it was Monday for the Islanders, whose encore to a pair of promising victories over metropolitan-area rivals was a 7-0 loss to the Flyers -- their worst shutout defeat ever at Nassau Coliseum -- before a sellout holiday afternoon crowd that included many previously innocent children.

"Unacceptable,'' center John Tavares said in the dazed losing locker room.

Let's pause a moment and ponder a bigger picture than the one the Islanders are drawing as they try to find a path to the playoffs in this lockout-shortened season.

Clearly, this is a transition phase, what with the team now a mere 2 1/2 seasons from relocating to Brooklyn and Tavares, 22, morphing from a star on the rise into one who has arrived.

Entering Monday, he was on a five-game goal-scoring streak and had 11 goals in his previous 10 games. On Monday, the NHL named him its first star of the week for his seven points in three games.

Leaguewide gushing has commenced.

"I think he's a special player and he's a guy that you pay to watch, and there are not many of those,'' NBC analyst and former Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said Sunday during NBC's "Hockey Day in America" festivities in Central Park. "He's a competitive guy with talent who's in the elite tier of players in this league now. It's good to see it, because he seems to really work at his game. He's an honest pro.''

There are pitfalls with that "elite" status, though.

For one thing, there is the danger that Tavares will try to do too much to drag teammates along with him, which at times looked to be the case Monday as things got out of hand. He finished his minus-3 outing with twice as many penalty minutes (four) as shots on goal (two).

"I'm just trying to play my game," he said about that. "Obviously, when you're down a few goals, you're going to try to take some chances to get back in it. Other than that, I'm not trying to do everything by myself.

"I'm not going to take the team anywhere by myself. It's everyone. Twenty guys in this room that put the jersey on every game have to be there to do our part, and that's including me, and it wasn't good enough."

More importantly, there is this danger: Tavares surprised many in the NHL when he signed a six-year contract with the Islanders that took effect beginning this season, meaning it will last three years into the Brooklyn era.

That gives the Islanders a franchise foundation to build around. It also puts pressure on them not to squander the opportunity.

Before Monday's game, Howie Rose, who calls play-by-play for the Islanders and Mets, compared Tavares to David Wright in the way both blend their talents with classy approaches to their status as team centerpieces.

"They are so respectful and so cognizant of their role in helping to galvanize a fan base," he said. "They handle that responsibility flawlessly. I've never, ever, ever heard anybody say a bad word about either David Wright or John Tavares.''

All of which is very nice, of course. But the challenge for the Islanders is to avoid for Tavares what seems to be happening to the career prime of Wright, who at age 30 has one postseason appearance in nine seasons and like Tavares recently re-signed with a team that remains a work in progress.

As Rose said, Tavares is a "transcendent player" and "the guy you pay to see." But that only goes so far, especially in a sport in which non-goalies can do only so much to carry a team.

Eventually, Tavares will need to have everyone else walking in the same direction he is.

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