Though New York Islanders captain John Tavares just began his fifth season in the NHL, the No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL Draft has been in the spotlight for roughly a decade.
The Oakville, Ontario, native was the youngest player ever drafted into the Ontario Hockey League after the OHL introduced the "exceptional player" clause, which allowed Tavares, who was 14 at the time, to be selected by the Oshawa Generals with the No. 1 pick. Three days after he turned 15, he scored his first of 215 goals at the junior level.
Tavares only seemed to get better as the spotlight became brighter. He represented Canada at five international events and was named Most Valuable Player at the 2009 World Junior Championship, when he had 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in six games, leading his country to a gold medal. He said he believes all of the attention he received at the junior level has helped him become what he is today: one of the brightest young stars in the NHL.
"I think it's helped a lot," Tavares said. "At times, you can be overwhelmed, especially coming 18, 19 years old into the National Hockey League and [being] the first overall pick and what comes with that. I think a lot of those experiences certainly will help me. I've gone through a lot, been through a lot of up and downs."
Tavares has done his best to put the Islanders back on the map. New York finished with 61 points in 2008-09, which gave it the best chance to win the draft lottery in the spring of 2009, which it did. Islanders general manager Garth Snow kept it close to the vest that he would draft Tavares that June, but a crowd of more than 10,000 people at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum erupted as it watched via satellite when Snow selected Tavares with the No. 1 pick at Montreal's Bell Centre.
In 2012-13, Tavares (47 points in 48 games) led the Islanders to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. New York gave the Pittsburgh Penguins fits in the opening round but fell in six games. In September, Tavares was named the 14th captain in franchise history. His main goal is to get the Islanders back to the postseason, but he's also hoping to represent his country for the first time at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in February.
"It's obviously an exciting year with all the outdoor games, an Olympic year, coming off the way the playoffs were last year, it's an exciting time," Tavares told NHL.com. "If I can keep playing and keep growing like I have and focus on the Islanders and get us to the playoffs and having a good season, I think that'll give me my best chance on being there and playing for Canada."
Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist last season, knows the competition to make the Canada roster will be fierce. The list of centers he's going up against includes Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Logan Couture, Ryan Getzlaf, Steven Stamkos and Eric Staal. That's Tavares is doing his best to avoid thinking about Sochi. The main focus is helping the Islanders get to the next level.
"You don't try to worry about what you need to do too much," Tavares said. "That can maybe kind of sidetrack you in some ways. It's I just keep playing the same way, the same mindset, the same attitude, the same drive that I've had, and I think everything should take care of itself."
Tavares boasts talent most can only dream about, but it's his drive and determination that separates him from a lot of players in the NHL. That's what made it so easy for Snow and Islanders coach Jack Capuano to have Tavares replace Mark Streit as captain after Streit was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in June.
"From the day we drafted John, we knew he had a high-end skill set," Snow said. "We knew he could dominate on the ice. It's been fun to see him take on a leadership role. I think people from the outside now recognize what a high-character person he is and what a leader he is.
"On a day-to-day basis in practice, you get to really see how hard he works at his game and what he does not only in-season, but in the offseason to reach the level that he wants to be. He's obviously coming off a season where he was a finalist for the Hart Trophy. I know he's looking to build on that."
Tavares became the Islanders' No. 1 center the moment he first stepped on the ice at Nassau Coliseum in the fall of 2009, but it was up to him to perform and prove he could play in the NHL right away. He appeared in all 82 games in 2008-09 and had 24 goals and 30 assists. He attributes a lot of his early success to Streit and Islanders assistant coach Doug Weight, who was captain and Tavares' landlord that first season.
"I think I'm very comfortable in my own shoes. I've learned a lot since Day One, especially from Dougie and from Mark," Tavares said. "They've become two great friends of mine. I've learned a lot from what they did as captains. I think every year I've grown and become more vocal and more comfortable within the locker room. I think that'll continue. I don't see anything changing in that way."
If Tavares is selected to Canada's squad, it would be another indication the Islanders continue to be on the upswing. Last month, New York played its first game at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, which the team will call home in the fall of 2015. In January, the Islanders will be in the spotlight when they face the New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium as part of the 2014 NHL Coors Light Stadium Series. And, in February, there's a good chance Tavares will be asked to help Canada win a gold medal at the Olympics.
"We know there's some great things coming our way and we're excited to see that people are starting to realize how we have some great potential," Tavares said. "With the move to Brooklyn and now making the playoffs, the Yankee Stadium game, you can see a lot of things starting to head in the right direction for us, and it's important for us to keep trending that way. These are all great opportunities and now we have to take advantage of them."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
Author: Brian Compton | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
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