After waiting nearly three months since the Islanders selected John Tavares as the first overall pick in this year's draft, Islanders fans got their first look at the 19-year-old No. 1 draft choice in action during the team's preseason home opener at Nassau Coliseum last night.
In his first game at the Coliseum - the same building in which Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Pat LaFontaine began their careers - Tavares received a round of cheers, whistles, and chants of "Let's Go Tavares!" during his first shift of the Isles' 4-2 loss to the Devils.
"I tried to just focus on the game, but it was pretty awesome," Tavares said of his Long Island debut. "To get a response like that is pretty special."
Tavares, who made his first assist of the preseason on a nice centering feed to Matt Moulson in front of the net Sunday against Edmonton, connected again with Moulson for an assist on Moulson's third-period power-play goal that tied the game 2-2. Although Tavares has yet to score a goal, he has two assists in his first three games.
Tavares' first preseason has been a learning process. While the former OHL sniper has shouldered lofty expectations and shown flashes of growing pains adapting to the next level, he said he believes he has made steady progress each game.
"It's been an adjustment and obviously the pace is a lot higher, but I feel like I'm starting to get accustomed to that," Tavares said. "I think I'm getting used to the pace and intensity of the game. I've just got to get my timing down and all those little things around the net to make plays."
By all indications, the Islanders believe that will only take a matter of time.
The organization's clear commitment to Tavares - he entered training camp with his roster spot virtually ensured - is an endorsement of the potential and the success they believe he'll bring to the franchise.
"I've really liked what I've seen from him offensively," coach Scott Gordon said. "He certainly has a level of skill that's going to make us better for the future."
The Islanders want to protect Tavares from unrealistic expectations, but they also believe his skills will allow him to develop into a potent offensive threat.
"There are things he's going to do with the puck that we haven't seen a whole lot of in the past year," Gordon said.
Gordon has taken extra time with Tavares already - pulling him aside to show him video of several of his shifts - with the understanding that Tavares' growth hinges on his ability to learn on the fly while being thrust into his first NHL season.
"I think we have to be realistic and know he's going to find out some things on his own and from coaches about the lack of time and space [at this level] and understand that not every game is won on every shift," Gordon said, hoping the instructional process will eventually pay dividends.
"We want to try and expedite the process so he gets more comfortable quicker," Gordon said. "We want him to be here this year. Our expectations are that he's going to play for us."
Notes & quotes: The Islanders whittled their roster with another round of cuts yesterday, including Jesse Joensuu, Tyler Haskins, Tony Romano, Nathan Lawson, Justin DiBenedetto and Sean Bentivoglio . . . Doug Weight (groin) and Sean Bergenheim (groin) have yet to play in a preseason game since suffering strains last Wednesday against Edmonton, but both skated yesterday before the team took the ice for the morning skate.