There has been a trend in the NHL toward younger players being captains, and the results have been mixed. But John Tavares of the New York Islanders has quickly established himself as the leader of the club in his first year wearing the “C” despite the fact that he is just 23.
Tavares describes his leadership style by saying, “I just like to be a guy that’s hard working and humble. You earn what you get...You hope that stuff can rub off on guys.”
The Islanders have accepted Tavares as their leader despite getting off to a disappointing 8-10-3 start this season after they qualified for the playoffs last year for the first time since 2007. Injuries to key players like veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, forward Thomas Vanek and now goalie Evgeni Nabokov haven’t helped.
But Tavares works harder at being a great hockey player than anybody, and that has earned him the respect of Islanders rookies and veterans alike. The one thing that all Isles players agreed on when asked about their captain was that he leads primarily by example. Monday at practice, he was once again one of the last players off the ice.
“His work ethic speaks for itself, and the way that he prepares to play the game is second to none,” said linemate Kyle Okposo. “From everything that I’ve seen, he really doesn’t leave much to chance. He works hard to be in the best physical condition. Mentally also he’s a student of the game. We can all learn from him.”
It was clear from the beginning that the Islanders were rebuilding their franchise around Tavares when they made him the top overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft.
The former Oshawa Generals star has more than lived up to his billing, improving his statistics and his overall game each year since he joined the league in 2009-10. Last season, Tavares was a Hart Trophy finalist and finished with 28 goals and 47 points during the lockout-shortened campaign.
At the press conference announcing Tavares’ appointment, general manager Garth Snow explained why his star center was the team’s new captain, per the Islanders’ official website:
“John has developed into an elite player in this league and become the leader of our franchise both on and off the ice,” Snow said. “He consistently represents our organization with class and respect. John’s work ethic and determination inspires his teammates to succeed, which makes him the perfect choice to lead our franchise.”
Some young captains in the NHL have struggled under the weight of being the team’s leader. Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers has seen his offensive production diminish since he was named captain. Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche struggled last season but has bounced back with 15 points in 18 games so far this year.
But being captain hasn’t slowed Tavares down. He is off to an even better start this season with nine goals and 25 points in 21 games. JT has been consistent, scoring at least one point in 18 of 21 games so far.
But Tavares has done more than just keep his own offensive production up. He has the respect of his teammates, who have all accepted him as the team’s leader.
While he’s not the most vocal captain, Tavares knows when to speak up and how to reach his teammates.
“Each year he’s been here he’s been a little bit more vocal, and he’s certainly taken on that role as well,” explained forward Josh Bailey. “He keeps the room talkative, between periods whether things are going good or bad...He’s definitely one of the main ones talking in those situations, preaching positive stuff and at times talking about negative stuff that we need to improve upon. He does a good job both ways.”
Veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck has spent six full seasons in the NHL, and he sees what makes Tavares effective as a leader. “When he feels like something needs to be said, he’ll say it,” Clutterbuck added. “I think he leads by example. He plays hard and leads the team. In a lot of cases, the team goes how he’s going.”
Tavares learned a lot about leadership by watching his uncle, also named John Tavares, who played professional lacrosse in Canada when the Isles captain was a boy. The elder John Tavares was an assistant captain, perennial All-Star and a league MVP.
“He was so important to his team, and I just saw the way he interacted with his teammates and how hard he worked on the floor and off the floor to be at his best,” Tavares recalled. “He was so good at making everyone involved whether a guy played five minutes a game or the guy was the leading scorer on the team. Everyone was just as important; he made them feel that way. He was a guy who liked to have a lot of fun, and I think that was really good for me to be around.”
While he’s not the most talkative guy, Tavares acknowledges that sometimes he needs to be a vocal leader as well. “There’s times when you talk and you address the team, or you step up and say things sometimes. I think that stuff just comes naturally. I’m more of a guy that’s just hard working and to step up with more actions than say words.”
Some fans would think that having a 23-year-old player as captain would rub some more experienced players the wrong way, but Clutterbuck indicated that veterans still have a role to play in the locker room.
“I think younger leaders are being helped out a lot by guys who are in senior positions,” Clutterbuck said. “I think you see teams doing that because the younger guys and franchise guys are the ones who tend to be around for long periods of time. Older guys, the way the system is, tend to be moving around a little more, and that’s one of the reason you hear about younger guys being captain. You always hear about guys bringing in older guys to the locker room. A lot of times it’s just to help those younger guys too.”
The team’s early-season struggles haven’t always been easy for Tavares. “[I’m] trying to keep us focused on the ultimate goal and the process it takes to get there,” he said when asked about his biggest challenge being captain. “It’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of details. It’s a challenge, but at the same time, it’s not that difficult with our group because I know how committed everyone is, how hard everyone works and how badly we want to get there.”
The Islanders can also take solace that despite their inconsistent start, they aren’t far behind the leaders in the mediocre Metropolitan Division.
One thing is certain. Few players in the NHL will work harder than Tavares. Whether it’s increasing his strength, practicing his shot or improving his leadership ability, Tavares will do what it takes to be as good as he can be.
“It’s how hard he works,” Bailey added when asked what makes Tavares a good leader. “How much he demands out of himself sets a precedent for the team, and it’s something you admire in him.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.
He is also the host of TheSTN Sports Report, which airs Monday-Friday at 1 p.m. ET at TheSTN.net/kurtzberg.