John Tavares looks on against the Carolina Hurricanes. (April 2,...

John Tavares looks on against the Carolina Hurricanes. (April 2, 2011) Credit: Jim McIsaac

John Tavares is still young, in case anyone needs reminding.

"It feels like yesterday that I was drafted as a 14-year-old by Oshawa of the Ontario League," said Tavares, who turned 21 on Sept. 20 and will begin his third Islanders season Saturday night. "People say the time goes by fast; you have to try and enjoy it. I'm definitely still having fun and excited to get the season started."

Tavares has changed quite a bit since he arrived for training camp in 2009 as a very reserved 18-year-old. His skills have always been evident, as he went from 24 goals as a rookie to 29 last season. But perhaps the thing that says the most about his progress is the "A'' he'll have on his jersey for 41 games this season. Tavares was named one of four alternate captains, along with Kyle Okposo and veterans Brian Rolston and Steve Staios.

"It means a lot to me to have that responsibility," he said after the Isles' final practice before the season opener against the Panthers. "I just try to lead by example on the ice and maybe be a little more vocal in the room. We have a lot of veterans and great leaders here, so it's an honor to have that 'A.' "

The best way Tavares can lead is by setting the tone offensively. He was set to do that last season as well, but a concussion in the opener last October sidelined him for three games. He still had six goals in five games after he returned, including his first career hat trick, but he slumped badly through November and December, picking up only four goals in his next 26 games after the fast start.

He didn't have much to work with during that stretch as the Isles' 1-17-3 slide forced a coaching change and dropped them out of playoff contention early.

"The team around him has gotten better, so that should help him," captain Mark Streit said. "I mean, he's a star now. You can see that he's become a star, so if the team is better, he'll have more chances offensively."

Tavares has no numbers in mind that he's reaching for, other than enough wins and points for the team to reach the postseason for the first time since he's been here.

"To be honest, I don't like to limit myself," he said. "If you get two goals, you want a third. If you get 25, you want 30. I want to help us win, so whatever it takes to get that done."

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