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Tavares returns to Toronto tonight for homecoming

New York Islanders forward John Tavares (91) takes

New York Islanders forward John Tavares (91) takes a shot in the third period. (Oct. 12, 2009) Credit: John Dunn

TORONTO - Monday night marks not only the last stop of the Islanders' taxing seven-game road trip, but also the heralded homecoming of Islanders No. 1 overall draft pick John Tavares.

When the Islanders face the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre, Toronto fans will get a glimpse of the 19-year-old who was christened years ago as one of Canada's next big stars, now with 23 NHL games under his belt and 19 points to his credit.

Tavares, who leads NHL rookies in scoring, expects about 100 people - family, friends, former teammates - on hand to watch his professional Toronto debut.

"It should be a lot of fun," said Tavares, who grew up in nearby Oakville. "To play in front of all the people who helped me get to where I am will be pretty special."

Before coming to New York, where he has helped resuscitate a team that finished with the league's worst record last season, Toronto served as the epicenter for all the attention Tavares received, good and bad.

"It's not what an everyday kid might experience, but I tried to just be myself and enjoy it," Tavares said of the hype. "I always felt lucky to have a great talent and that playing hockey was a special privilege."

From the age of 10, Tavares' potential was apparent and rumblings of his talent reverberated throughout Toronto's hockey community.

James Naylor, who coached Tavares in minor hockey for several years, immediately recognized certain things in Tavares - an innate, intense desire to become the very best and an exceptional ability to dominate games.

"You'd see the light go on and he'd take over the game," Naylor said. "When it was on, we'd just climb on his shoulders and go."

That ability enabled him to rise through the ranks and impress just about everyone along the way. But with his widely chronicled ascent, which began when he earned "exceptional player" status and gained entry into the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 14 and continued as he shattered scoring records in the OHL, also came criticism.

First, his ability to compete against older, bigger players was questioned. And then, his skating.

"There was so much time to nitpick and dissect his game," said OHL teammate Cal Clutterbuck, who now plays for the Minnesota Wild. "That stuff can be hard on a kid, but his mindset was always just to prove them wrong."

In his rookie NHL season, Tavares has continued to silence any lingering doubt about his play.

Coach Scott Gordon said he didn't have many expectations for Tavares' first half of the season, but it's clear his top-line center has exceeded whatever he anticipated.

"His strengths are his confidence around the net and his poise with the puck," Gordon said. "And one thing I didn't hear as much about was his playmaking ability."

Nine goals and 10 assists. Not too shabby.

"Overall, I think I've shown I belong," Tavares said, "and that I can contribute every night and make a difference."

New York Sports