TORONTO - The NHL is talking about John Tavares again.
With the New York Islanders forward seemingly coming into his own and starting to reach the heights expected of a No. 1 draft pick, the fanfare that accompanied his arrival into the league in 2009 has returned.
"In my opinion, he's one of the top few forwards in the league," Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said Monday before the first of back-to-back meetings with the Islanders.
There can be no bigger compliment than the fact virtually every opponent is drafting up defensive gameplans designed to stop the 21-year-old centre.
Very few have had much success, particularly in the past month while he built a 12-game point streak. Tavares is benefiting from the maturation experienced by most young players, but he's also managed to stay a stride or two ahead of opponents by reshaping his game.
The work started over the summer in suburban Toronto with his longtime hockey skills coach, Dusan Kralik, who put the sniper through countless hours of passing drills in an effort to add another element to his offensive arsenal.
"He always carried the team on his shoulders in terms of scoring," Kralik told The Canadian Press in an interview. "I think he realized it's not maybe necessary to score goals. Especially, teams he's playing against—everybody know he's a goal scorer so they put probably more emphasis covering him as a dominant player.
"He's still capable to open (space) for other players and create opportunities."
The results can be observed in statistics. Tavares is currently on pace to post career-high totals in every major offensive category, but his biggest gains can be found with assists.
It's a significant change for a player that made the jump to the Ontario Hockey League at age 15 and scored a whopping 72 goals in 67 games for the Oshawa Generals a year later.
Tavares was just seven years old when he first started working with Kralik. Since then, the instructor has watched his star pupil grow and mature, and believes Tavares is much more comfortable in his third NHL season.
"He seems to understand the game much better than before and he's not as stressed about it," said Kralik. "I think it's just helping him to contribute. (He's) helping the other players to score goals."
Tavares once again finds himself as a major talking point in NHL circles. Praise is coming from opponents and teammates alike, and the outcry that followed his recent exclusion from ESPN's list of the top-25 NHL players under 25 spoke volumes about where he stands.
While many around the Islanders acknowledge seeing a change in Tavares' personality off the ice—"I think he's really come into his own. When I first got here, Johnny was a really reserved guy," said coach Jack Capuano—no one is surprised by the gains he made on it.
"This guy's dedication to hockey is huge," said Islanders captain Mark Streit. "He's been working so hard every summer. ... He got stronger, he got faster and it's paying off.
"You can't get the puck off him."
Just ask some of the defencemen tasked with trying to do it. Tavares is extremely determined around the puck, particularly along the boards and deep in the offensive end, and has a gifted set of hands.
"The one thing about him too is he's super competitive," said Schenn. "He wants to be the go-to guy all the time. He wants to win bad."
Unless something changes on Long Island, that will remain a tough task. The Islanders currently carry the NHL's lowest payroll and that likely won't change even once Tavares' new $33-million contract kicks in next season.
His decision to sign the six-year extension in September—which will make him the team's highest-paid player at $5.5 million per season—provided a strong public vote of confidence in the organization and was a popular move among teammates.
Clearly, Tavares believes better days lie ahead and he's determined to be the driving force behind a turnaround.
"Every season he's getting better and better," said Kralik.
Added linemate Matt Moulson: "The best is yet to come too."
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