John Tavares scored 24 goals and 54 points in 82 games during his rookie season. (Getty Images)
Can John Tavares make a Steven Stamkos-like jump during his sophomore season? Unfortunately for Islanders fans, the answer is “no.” Actually, it’s more of a “no” with a disclaimer: “at least not with his current supporting cast.”
Let’s not forget – Stamkos tied for the NHL lead in goals with 51. It’s not like he took a baby step during the ’09-10 season - dude took an Olympic-level long jump.
To lead the NHL in scoring (or any league, really), you need a lot of help and a young star like Tavares is no different. Stamkos played with elite talent in Martin St-Louis (and on the power play, Vincent Lecavalier). It was like being the third wide receiver on an NFL team: he was left open while opponents keyed in on proven targets.
John Tavares has no such luxury.
Not only will he be the one other teams key in on, but he’ll be expected to be the sole initiator of great plays. Sure, Josh Bailey could experience inflated numbers by cashing in on JT’s ability to attract coverage, but who’s there to give Tavares’ stats a boost?
Last year the Islanders offense finished tied for 20th out of 30 NHL teams in goals-per-game and this summer the only forwards they added were either rookies or tough guys.
At some point, the talent in the Islanders lineup may grow to qualify as the type of elite linemates a guy like JT needs, but for now, they’re still more than a little bit short.
While one of my favorite NHLers, Kyle Okposo, continues to make major strides, having him as the team’s second best forward isn’t exactly the same as pairing Alex Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom on the rush, Sidney Crosby with Evgeni Malkin on the PP or Henrik Sedin with brother Daniel anywhere. And now that Okposo is out indefinitely with a right shoulder injury, the Isles need to add support more than ever.
Providing elite talent with players to work with makes them and the team exponentially better. We’ve seen the one-star system fail before.
Those stars who never get the chance to work with someone who thinks on that next level end up like Rick Nash in Columbus, or Eric Staal in Carolina. We saw (and still occasionally see) flashes of greatness, but I’m starting to get worried we’re watching potential Hall of Fame careers squandered by leaving them in solitary confinement on low-budget teams.
The Isles are messing up by not spending the money to surround Tavares with other offensively talented guys. The rebuild is providing nice puzzle pieces, but not the most important ones.
The confidence boost that comes from knowing someone has your offensive back simply can’t be measured. The pressure valve is tweaked for a release and as stress goes down, better play increases.
Stamkos was a raw talent who had the privilege of playing on a team with a couple of studs who had been atop the league’s scoring list for many years and he’s found top gear far quicker than anyone could’ve imagined. If a player like Backstrom - a guy many are picking to threaten for the league lead in points this year - gets stuck in Tavares’ one-man-show situation, does he develop this nicely? Unlikely.
The money it would cost the Islanders to sign a free agent (or to trade for a guy with a big contract) would pale in comparison to the money lost if they don’t give Tavares the chance to succeed soon. Making him the pack-mule for Long Island’s hopes could mean the loss of a premier talent when his entry level deal expires - lord knows I wouldn’t stick around to flail on my own with a salary-floor team.
For a rebuild to work, at some point you have to flip the switch, commit the money and commit to winning. You can draft all you want, but you need to fill in the missing puzzle pieces. And by not bringing in the type of star who can take Tavares to that next level, the Islanders are kicking that puzzle piece under the couch and might find themselves missing it when they need to put it all together.
Tavares is a talented young star who scored 54 points as a 19-year-old rookie in a man’s league. He’s not just any puzzle piece, he’s the big ol’ corner piece the Isles need to build off. And if they don’t want to waste him, they better go buy the rest of the puzzle soon, or at some point the whole project will have to scrapped.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.