John Tavares was a star player before this shortened 2013 NHL season, but over the last few months, the face of the New York Islanders has become one of the league's best players and a leading candidate for the Hart Trophy.
You could even argue that Tavares became a superstar last season when he tallied 81 points (31 goals, 50 assists) in 82 games. Despite his brilliant performance, the Islanders finished near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, allowing Tavares to fly under the radar in 2011-12.
That's changed this season, and the difference between last year and 2013 is that Tavares' improved play has helped catapult the Islanders into the playoff race, and with three more points, this franchise will secure a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2006-07.
It's difficult to predict what Tavares' ceiling is because he still has a lot of room for improvement, which is fascinating when you look at the success he's already enjoyed at the NHL level.
Should Tavares win the Hart Trophy?
While watching Tavares this season, I have come to the conclusion that his ceiling is the level of Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk. The Russian superstar was an elite defensive forward and a 80-100 point scorer in his prime (2005-06 through 2008-09), while also performing at a high level in the playoffs. This level of performance is the ceiling for Tavares.
From an offensive standpoint, the Islanders star is almost at that level. He has 45 points in 45 games this season, and his 26 goals rank third on the league's scoring leaderboard. Each year he becomes more productive offensively, and as the Islanders continue to surround him with more talent, his numbers will only get stronger.
If we were in a normal 82-game season, Tavares would be on pace for a career-high in goals (47) with 34 assists. Tavares is fully capable of becoming a 40-goal/50 assist or a 30-goal/60-assist player for many years. If he performs at these levels, the Islanders will win a lot of games because the team is so dependent on his scoring. New York is 20-6-1 when Tavares tallies at least one point, compared to 4-10-4 when he doesn't.
Since the Islanders have had more scoring depth this season with the emergence of a reliable second line of Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo, Tavares has been able to focus more on his own offense instead of playing with a pass-first mentality to get his teammates involved.
This has resulted in him scoring more goals and becoming a true sniper with an incredibly accurate wrist shot, which is something he didn't have as a rookie. His shot release is quicker and he's not afraid to make a few bold dangles to get into a position to score. This kind of goal scoring form isn't new to Tavares, who scored 72 goals as a 16-year-old kid in the OHL.
The Islanders star has become one of the league's best offensive players, but scoring at a point-per-game rate is not his ceiling. As his talents improve and the Islanders grow as a team, Tavares will become a 90-plus point scorer for several years. Very few players in the NHL have the goal scoring and ability, playmaking skills and creativity that Tavares displays on the ice each shift.
For someone who has just under four full years of NHL experience, Tavares has an incredible feel for the game and a brilliant hockey IQ. As he earns some valuable playoff experience, he will learn even more about the game, which help him improve in several different areas.
The biggest gap between Datsyuk and Tavares, and an area that No. 91 still needs to improve quite a bit, is the defensive aspect of his game. Even at this stage of his career, the Red Wings center is still a much better defensive player, but Tavares has taken encouraging steps in this area of his game since the start of last year and will continue to develop over the next few seasons.
The Islanders star has 26 takeaways, 19 blocked shots and leads the team with 421 faceoff wins. But stats don't tell the whole story regarding his defensive improvement.
One of the most impressive parts of Tavares' defense is his hard work in the corners and along the boards to win physical battles and gain possession of the puck in his own zone. Back checking has also become a regular habit for him. He's gotten a lot stronger physically since joining the NHL, and this makes it easier for him to protect the puck and create enough time in space to find an open teammate.
Tavares understands that without much defensive skill on his team's blue line and at forward, he has to play a major role in this area of the game. His linemates, which are usually Brad Boyes and Matt Moulson, are not good defensive forwards. This forces Tavares to work extremely hard in his own end, and to his credit, he's still been dominant offensively despite having a much larger responsibility on defense.
Tavares isn't on Datsyuk's level right now because the Red Wings veteran is one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL with an impressive playoff resume that includes a pair of Stanley Cup titles.
But Tavares is certainly a generation star and will soon be among the five-best players in the world because not only does he have the talent to be successful, the Islanders star has the desire and willingness to work hard at improving his extraordinary skill set.
This year's NHL playoffs will be exciting for many reasons, but one storyline to watch closely is the play of Tavares. You don't know how great a player can become until he responds to the pressure, intensity and expectations created by the playoffs.
Will Tavares win a Stanley Cup with the Islanders?
Tavares has quickly become one of the most likeable players in the NHL. He plays at a high level at both ends of the ice, he's the future captain of his team and he wants to be with the Islanders long-term. He's committed to turning this franchise around and building it back into the Stanley Cup winner it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Most good young players of his caliber would have bolted from Long Island at the first opportunity, but Tavares is not your typical selfish professional athlete. He signed a six-year, $33 million contract before the 2011-12 season and wants to be part of the future success that the Islanders will have as its top young players/prospects flourish in the NHL.
As one of the top players in the league on a playoff contender in the New York market, Tavares has officially become a household name in 2013. The awesome part about his immediate future is how much better he can play at both ends of the ice. Tavares has grown so much since his rookie year, but he's only 22 years old.
The sky is the limit for Tavares, and it will be exciting to watch him turn into one of the top two-way players in the world.