New York Islanders center John Tavares. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jimmy Jeong
MONTREAL - Any question of whether John Tavares would live up to the hype that came with being drafted first overall may have been answered by the 19-year-old's fine play in his first few weeks with the New York Islanders.
The centre from Oakville, Ont., was averaging a point per game through his first seven NHL contests, and had the game-winner in a shootout in the lowly Isles' first victory of the season on Wednesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.
"It's definitely been a transition, but every day I've been getting better and feeling more comfortable," Tavares said Thursday as the Islanders prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens. "I'm learning something new every day, and learning how to handle it.
"It's the highest level in the world and some things you have to go through yourself to learn how to handle them, but so far it's going pretty well. Finally getting our first win was nice, and now we want to get the ball rolling."
It was Tavares' first visit to the Bell Centre since the draft in June, when general manager Garth Snow called his name after weeks of teasing suggestions that he may instead opt for big defenceman Victor Hedman, who went second overall to Tampa Bay, or centre Matt Duchene, the third pick by Colorado.
So far, the six-foot, 198-pound centre has not disappointed. He scored a goal in his first NHL game against Pittsburgh and has looked strong on a young line with 21-year-old Kyle Okposo and 25-year-old Matt Moulson, a free agent signing from the Los Angeles Kings who trains in the off-season with Tavares in Mississauga, Ont.
And Tavares has become the new face of the Islanders, a team that finished last overall in 2008-09 and that has missed the playoffs three of the last four years.
A swarm of media awaited him at the team's game-day skate, although Tavares saw that many times when he was starring for the Oshawa Generals and later the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. That's not to mention his success at the world junior championships, where he won gold with Canada in 2008 and 2009 and was named MVP of the tournament last January in Ottawa.
"I can understand the attention and it's been there for a while," he said. "I handle it the best I can and just worry about what I do on the ice and make sure I'm prepared every day to help my team.
"I try to be like one of the guys and not try to make myself any more important than anyone else on the team. Everyone's got a big role and does their part to help the team and I just try to be one of them. I try to stay humble and be a hand-working guy like everyone else."
To ease the transition, both to hockey and to life in the NHL, he has been living at veteran Doug Weight's house, much as Sidney Crosby has done while living at team owner Mario Lemieux's home in his first few seasons with Pittsburgh. It is no accident that the two young stars share the same agent, Pat Brisson, who also handles young Chicago Blackhawks talents Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Tavares said living at the Weight household helps him "focus on hockey and not worry about the extra stuff that can come at me really hard, being a young guy in a big city and being in a new environment."
"He remembers being with the Rangers and all the stuff he had to learn to handle on his own and he wanted to make sure I didn't have to deal with as many things as he did," he added. "He and his family have been very good to me."
Tavares called Crosby "a big inspiration."
"Mostly it's just me asking Pat a lot of things about how Sid handled things. Jonathan Toews was my roommate when I was 16 at the World Junior camp and I learned a lot from him there."
It is not as though Tavares does not have things to learn. For instance, Islanders coach Scott Gordon has been stressing shorter shifts for his young goal-scorer.
"I made a comparison with him and Eric Staal and (Wednesday) night," said Simpson. "The majority of his shifts were over a minute.
"Staal played 26 minutes, which was seven or eight minutes more than John, but he had a lot of 30 and 40 second shifts. What makes it hard with overextended shifts is that it's hard for the coach to go back to you. We talked to John about 20 to 40-second segments. If you work hard in the first 20 seconds, you want to get off after 40 seconds. If you go out and just put your toe in the water to get a feel for what's going on, a lot of the time your shifts aren't as productive as they can be."
Another source of support is Moulson, who was drafted 263rd overall by Pittsburgh in 2003 and played four seasons at Cornell University. Moulson ended up signing as a free agent in 2006 with the Kings, for whom he had six goals and four assists in played 29 games over two seasons before being cut loose again.
Playing with Tavares, he had five goals and three assists in his first seven games.
"Perfect city, perfect place, perfect system, perfect team, perfect coaching for me," was how Moulson described the Islanders. "I don't think I could have asked for anything more.
"When I became a free agent, they were the first team that called. Scott Gordon called me himself and said 'we really want you, we're going to give guys a chance.' I was fortunate enough to get a couple of goals in pre-season and ended up with John the last couple of games and developed that chemistry."
While some doubted that Tavares could make the jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL, Moulson was not among them.
"I knew his 'compete' level," said Moulson. "I said he was going to score a minimum of 35 to 40 goals, but everyone was laughing at me.
"I know how hard he works at developing his game on and off the ice every day. He's only going to get better once he figures out what he can and can't do and how much time he has. I think the sky's the limit for him."