The New York Islanders were picked by many fans and journalists to finish at the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings in 2013 and miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
With very few people outside of Long Island believing in this team's playoff chances, first-line center John Tavares has risen to superstardom this season while carrying this franchise on a remarkable run toward the postseason.
For the first time in years, the Islanders are fighting for a playoff spot, and thanks to Tavares' amazing performances at both ends of the ice, New York has an 86.3 percent chance to reach the postseason (per Sports Club Stats).
As the team's No. 1 center, leading goal scorer, top playmaker and a fantastic leader, Tavares needs to be in the Hart Trophy conversation.
Right in the middle of the Islanders' late-season push toward the playoffs is their 22-year-old superstar. Since the start of March, the Islanders have climbed up the standings with a 13-6-1 record, and in that span, Tavares has 17 points, including 11 goals.
Thus far in the month of April, the Islanders have played four teams near them in the standings that they had to beat (New Jersey Devils on 4/1, Winnipeg Jets on 4/2, Washington Capitals on 4/4 and Philadelphia Flyers on 4/9). In those four games, the Isles went 3-0-1 and Tavares had five points with a plus/minus rating of plus-one. He's playing some of his best hockey in the most important time of the year, which is the most effective way for players to strengthen their Hart Trophy resume.
Tavares has been the catalyst offensively for the Islanders this year with a team-leading 42 points (eighth best in NHL) through 41 games. He also leads the Islanders with 24 goals, which ranks third on the league's goal-scoring leaderboard. His career high for goals in a single season is 31, which he set last season. If 2013 used a full 82-game schedule, Tavares would be on pace for 49 goals. He also leads his team with four game-winning goals.
The Islanders' power play has also been a real weapon for them this season. It ranks eighth in the NHL with a 21.1 percent success rate, and Tavares leads the team with nine power-play goals (second-highest total in the league). With 16 power-play points, No. 91 has accounted for 57 percent of his team's scoring with the man-advantage.
Whenever there's a debate on who should be named as a Hart Trophy finalist, all of the top candidates have to be mentioned. Here is my updated ranking of the top five Hart candidates as of April 12.
- Sidney Crosby (PIT): He leads the NHL with 41 assists and 56 points. His team has the best record in the Eastern Conference.
- Jonathan Toews (CHI): The Blackhawks captain has 40 points (19 goals, 21 assists) in 39 games, a plus-23 rating, a 60.5 faceoff percentage, a league-leading 47 takeaways and plays a major role on the power play and penalty kill.
- John Tavares (NYI): He's playing at a point-per-game pace, excelling on special teams, making a larger contribution defensively and his line is responsible for more than one-third of his team's total offense.
- Ryan Getzlaf (ANA): The Ducks captain has 43 points (13 goals, 30 assists) in 38 games with a plus-15 rating. He's also excelling defensively and on special teams.
- Patrick Kane (CHI): Kane leads the team with the NHL's best record in scoring with 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in 39 games. His defensive improvement has also been impressive.
If you took these players away from their respective teams, all of them would still be in a playoff spot, except for Tavares and the Islanders.
The Penguins still win games when Crosby or Malkin are hurt, the Blackhawks have tons of talent to overcome the absences of Toews or Kane, and the Ducks have enough scoring depth to be competitive without Getzlaf. If the Islanders had to play without Tavares for an extended period of time this year, they would not be in a playoff spot in the East with seven games left on their schedule.
When Tavares tallies at least a point, the Islanders are 20-5-1. In games that he fails to contribute offensively, New York is 2-10-3. Tavares has to play well for the Islanders to win games consistently. Even though the Isles rank eighth in goals scored, Tavares is one of just five players on the team with eight or more goals scored and the only guy with more than 13.
Tavares is creating his own offense and he's having a major impact on the success of his teammates, specifically his linemates Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes.
When the Islanders picked up Boyes as a free agent in the summer, they probably didn't expect him to provide a lot of scoring since he tallied just 37 points over the last two seasons combined. But Boyes' game has been rejuvenated playing alongside Tavares, and the stats don't lie.
Boyes is currently scoring at a rate of 0.775 points/game, which he hasn't done since the 2008-09 season. As for Moulson, eight of his 13 goals this season were assisted by Tavares. Making your teammates better is something all great players do, and Tavares is no exception.
"We depend on [John Tavares] and [Brad Boyes] and [Matt Moulson] quite a bit, and they’ve done a heck of a job all season for us as well," said Islanders forward Josh Bailey after Thursday's impressive 2-1 victory over the Boston Bruins.
While most of the praise Tavares has received this season is due to his offensive brilliance, the defensive aspect of his game has also been a major factor in the team's success. He ranks third among Islanders forwards with 25 takeaways, and he has 17 blocked shots, 26 hits and 370 faceoff wins.
Even though Tavares has a plus/minus rating of minus-five, that stat does not tell the whole story about a player's defensive performance. For example, Tavares won eight of his 13 faceoffs against the Bruins on Thursday, including a few important defensive zone draws. He also won several puck battles along the boards in his own zone.
Not only has Tavares taken his offensive game to another level this season, his defensive improvement has also been substantial. He makes an impact at both ends of the ice for his team, which makes him so valuable.
Playoff excitement has returned to the Nassau Coliseum for the first time in seven years, and Islanders fans are starting to chant "we want playoffs!" at home games. This energy has motivated the Islanders to give 100 percent effort on every single shift.
"They’re believing in one another, they’re believing in the system, and they’re playing hard," said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano after Tuesday's win.
"At this time of year, I think teams that work extremely hard and win their battles—elevate their battle level and win their battles—have a good chance to win the game, and that’s what we’re doing."
Tavares isn't the only player on the Islanders making an impact on the team's success, but without his contributions at both ends of the ice this season, this franchise would not be in the midst of a playoff race right now.
The 22-year-old superstar needed to have a career year for the Islanders to have a chance of making the playoffs, and Tavares has delivered thus far. At the moment, Crosby, Toews and Tavares are the three players who should be the Hart Trophy finalists.
As the Islanders grab the attention of more hockey fans outside of Long Island during the playoff race in the final weeks of the season, people will start to see why Tavares is quickly becoming one of the NHL's 10 best players.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained first hand.