John Tavares leads the Islanders by example

John Tavares of the Islanders waves before throwing John Tavares of the Islanders waves before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game between the Yankees and the Detroit Tigers. (Aug. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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John Tavares has been the Islanders' best player, their most important player, from the moment he stepped onto the ice wearing No. 91 a little more than four years ago.

Both he and his team have taken some big strides since, culminating in last spring's brief but exhilarating playoff run and Tavares being named a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

In about a month, he may take on a new title, one befitting the man who could lead the Isles out of the dark ages and back into being an annually competitive team: captain.

Nothing has been announced, but those around the Isles have given every indication that Tavares, who turns 23 on Sept. 20, will be named the 14th captain in Islanders history sometime around the start of training camp next month.

He would be the second-youngest captain in the NHL, older only than Gabriel Landeskog, 20, of the Avalanche.

"I think he's ready," said goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who became tight with Tavares last season. "We knew last year that he was a leader, not just on the ice. He's not extremely vocal, but he's vocal when he needs to be. He's a very mature guy for 22, and he's our superstar."

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Tavares would step into this role in a big year for himself and for his team. The Isles won't be sneaking up on anyone this season after taking the heavily favored Penguins to six games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. He also expects to represent Canada in the Winter Olympics.

As usual, he's preparing himself with intense summer workouts in Toronto.

"You understand things more, you learn and try to prepare yourself best you can," Tavares said Thursday at Yankee Stadium during the Stadium Series walkaround. "There's always little tweaks, whether in training, your down time, how you manage your life. It's just growing up and maturing. It's been another good summer for me and it's really motivating to get back to the playoffs and wanting to be successful. The main thing is we want to keep going forward; it's been my mind-set."

Tavares' Hart Trophy candidacy came after 28 goals in the shortened 48-game 2013 season. He became a more prolific goal-scorer instead of a playmaker, seeking to throw opponents off his scent a bit. It was something he said he focused on during his 2012 summer training, shooting hundreds of pucks to hone his accuracy.

"The things that people don't see on a day-to-day basis are the things that make him so successful," Islanders general manager Garth Snow said about Tavares' rigorous offseason training regimen.

Kyle Okposo, whose slow starts the past couple of seasons had become a maddening trend, came to Tavares toward the end of last season to pick his teammate's brain about training.

"It really started clicking with me that I needed to take that next step, and Johnny ups his game every year," Okposo said. "So we talked a lot about a bunch of different things, and I found someone to help me with some on-ice things the final month of the season. It's no coincidence that was when I had my best games."

And for a week last month, Okposo joined Tavares, along with Casey Cizikas and prospect Ryan Strome, working out at The Athlete Training Centre in Toronto, Tavares' offseason training home since he was the top prospect in juniors.

"We've got a good group of guys and they all know how hard John works at all aspects of his game," Snow said. "It's no surprise to me that some of the guys want to train the way he does."

Tavares doesn't see himself as some sort of workout Pied Piper, exhorting his teammates to follow his lead.

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"I don't feel proud or anything, it's just about finding ways to get better," he said. "If they think I'm doing things the right way, which I feel I'm trying to do, and they want to learn from that, that's great. I think we have so many guys like that on our team who are looking for ways to get better, whether it's on the ice or off the ice, mentally, things like that."

Tavares will always find things to work on. His skating is the most improved part of his game since he entered the league. And despite the team-high 28 goals last season, and three in the playoffs, he's working on his shooting.

Tavares and his team will have to prove they are a playoff-caliber squad over 82 games, not just 48. They've had painfully slow starts each of the past three seasons. And despite outplaying the Penguins in four of the six playoff games, the Isles had two duds on the road that ultimately cost them a shot at an upset.

The biggest thing the Islanders learned last season was that Tavares cannot do it alone. MVP, leader, captain -- he may hold all the big titles, but the Isles need all hands on deck to become the team they hope to be.

"It'd be a great honor for me, something I would definitely enjoy and accept," Tavares said of becoming captain. "But we have a great group and we're only going to get where we want to be by leaning on each other."

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