“His skating stride reminds me of Gordie’s,” said Goring, the former New York Islanders great, a member of the dynasty days of the early 1980s and now a TV color analyst for the team. “He’s got that same kind of long, powerful stride. Gordie was just so strong on his skates. So is this kid.”
“Kid” can still rightfully apply to Tavares. He’s only 23. Except, this is his fifth season in the NHL, and Islanders fans often refer to Tavares and “The Man” now, and that label rightfully applies, too.
Entering play on Jan. 10, Tavares stood tied with Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane for second in the NHL scoring race with 54 points, 11 behind Crosby.
No, Tavares isn’t at Crosby’s level yet, but he’s working on it.
“That’s the word that really applies to him: work. He’s just so driven, so disciplined, and he’s worked really, really hard to get to the next level,” said Goring, who will always probably be the answer to the trivia question: “Who was the greatest trade deadline pickup by a team in NHL history?" and who also wore No. 91 as an Islander, as Tavares does now.
After a media buildup that rivaled Crosby’s coming out of Oshawa and London, Ontario, as a junior player, Tavares went first overall to the Isles in the 2009 draft. But for the first couple years of his career, comparisons to Crosby seemed foolish. People wondered “Is this it?” when looking at his skating. He just wasn’t very fast, and he certainly didn’t help the Islanders become a winner right away. Forget about any comparisons to Crosby—some wondered if he was actually the next Alexandre Daigle.
Enlisting Braid’s help and that of an athletic trainer named Richard Clark, Tavares radically altered his skating stride. Instead of wide and choppy, Tavares skates more like a classic speed skater now, with long, loping, narrow strides.
Entering Friday’s game against the Avalanche, Tavares had 101 points in his previous 92 games. For the first time in his career, he is averaging more than a point a game, and this week he was named to the Canadian Olympic team.
“I knew I needed to work on my skating,” Tavares says, in the visitors’ dressing room at the Pepsi Center. “I knew I needed to improve as a player. And I know I still do. That’s just what I’m always trying to, just to progress every year, trying to find little areas where I can get better at. I just don’t want to ever be complacent or satisfied with what I’ve done.”
After a brutal start, the Islanders have gotten hot again, with Tavares leading the way. He had a three-goal, five-point game against Dallas on Jan. 6 and followed that up with three assists in a win over Toronto the next night. It’s what Tavares has been doing in the other areas, though, that has most impressed head coach Jack Capuano.
“Faceoffs, his play away from the puck—you create a lot of offense from your defense, especially as a centerman, making sure you come underneath the puck and you’re in the right position,” Capuano said. “He’s been doing that. Away from the puck has been the biggest thing. I continue to harp on him about that, that the elite players are solid offensively, but they (keep) playing good defensive hockey.”
Over in the Avalanche dressing room, fellow Canadian Olympian Matt Duchene, drafted two spots behind Tavares in 2009, said the Mississauga, Ontario, native is always someone he’s keeping an eye on in the box scores.
“Below the hashmarks, I don’t know if there’s a better guy in the league. He’s so good around the net,” Duchene said. “We probably have a friendly rivalry. We train a little bit together in the summer and we went through the draft process together, so we’re pretty good friends. We’re always pushing each other when we’re training together. We’ll do faceoffs when we’re training and push each other there. There’s a chance we might be on the same line together in the Olympics and we both know how each other plays, so there might be some real good chemistry there together.”
Besides Sidney Crosby, is John Tavares the next-best player in the NHL?
Before he really starts to think about Sochi, though, Tavares desperately wants the Islanders to go into the Olympic break in good position for a playoff run. After such a bad start, they have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it.
“We made the playoffs last year, and anything less than that again would be a disappointment,” Tavares said. “We can do it, but we can’t afford any letups.”
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.