How will Isles' Tavares grow?
In nineteen games, John Tavares has scored eight goals, tying him for the team lead and putting him on pace for more than 30 goals this season. Not a bad performance in his sophomore year since being selected by the Islanders first overall in the 2009 draft.
But the 20-year-old center's goal scoring is tempered by injury, the doldrums of the Islanders 14-game losing streak and the question of whether he will fulfill his high expectations while playing with the current Islanders lineup.
First came the concussion on opening night that sidelined him for three games. Then there was his first career hat trick that coincided with the beginning of the Islanders' debilitating 14-game slide. During that slump, Tavares (who didn't score for eight straight games) slipped to a worrisome minus-15, saw the departure of coach Scott Gordon and the entrance of his replacement, former Bridgeport coach Jack Capuano, who has tinkered with both the Islanders' system and personnel.
"I'm kind of used to that, having to adjust," said Tavares in a measured tone.
Tavares' even-keel demeanor is a byproduct of the years of scrutiny he endured as a teen hockey phenom in Canada, further edified by the extraordinary expectations placed upon him by others, and himself.
That strong emotional foundation is what many people believe will guide him through a tough season in which the team whose future he is supposed to represent has struggled to establish an identity and achieve success.
"You find out a lot about a player by how he deals with adversity," said assistant coach Dean Chynoweth, himself a former first-round Islanders pick. "What changes they make, how quickly they make them. I think it's been good. He has high expectations of himself, which is healthy, and he's a very driven individual. When you go through stretches of adversity like this, you can learn from that."
"He's very mature for his age; he's always been a few years ahead of himself that way," Tavares' agent Pat Brisson said. "Any type of step back you have to take, it's an experience. You know it's not a good time, but it builds a lot of maturity and he's building on what is already a tremendous character."
Character-building aside, there remains some concern about Tavares in such a crucial stage of his development.
Unlike the dynamic Sidney Crosby, Tavares requires a strong supporting cast to flourish. His ability to finish is substantial, but he needs the right players to get him the puck. Given the team's minuscule payroll, that hasn't been an easy task.
And then there are the more over-arching concerns surrounding the organization: The decrepit building and uncertainty over a future location, the setback the team's rebuilding has suffered already this season and its inability to attract top-tier talent.
"I'm hoping - for the organization and John's sake - that they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Brisson. "Any young player, you want them to be groomed the right way, and I'm extremely cautious about that right now, but I'm confident in John being able to cope with this."
Few people in hockey doubt Tavares' potential in ideal circumstances.
"He can be a 50-goal scorer, no problem," the Lightning's third-year standout Steven Stamkos told Newsday last month. "He's a great player and he's so smart in the offensive zone. He's got a great shot, great vision and the sky is really the limit for him."
But Stamkos, who saw a 28-goal increase in production from his first to second year in the league, was surrounded by seasoned, talented veterans like Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. Tavares is not.
Whether Tavares can make a similar jump without a stronger supporting cast remains to be seen.
When asked recently to assess his development, Tavares said he feels he's "getting better on a lot of levels."
"It's been tough for everybody during this stretch to focus on the way things have been going individually, so mostly we're trying to get back on track as a team right now. But I want to be a big part of this team and accept a lot of responsibility in all situations of the game and on both ends of the ice," Tavares said. "I'm working hard towards that."