New York Islanders' John Tavares among NHL elite

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John Tavares of the New York Islanders wasn't just the first player selected in the 2009 NHL draft.

He was the most celebrated teenager to enter the league since the Penguins put Sidney Crosby on their payroll four years earlier.

Tavares, it was said, had almost unlimited offensive potential.

He was blessed with exceptional instincts and creativity, was as adept at setting up teammates as he was lethal anytime he got the puck near the net.

All of that might have struck some as a bit hyperbolic at the time.

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    New York Islanders vs. Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.

  • TV, Radio:

    Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).

  • Probable goaltenders:

    Evgeni Nabokov for Islanders; Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins.

  • Penguins:

    Trying to win consecutive games for the second time this season. ??? D Brooks Orpik ranks among league leaders with 17 blocked shots. ??? Are 0-1 at Consol Energy Center, making them one of three teams without a point on home ice before Monday games.

  • Islanders:

    Are 1-1-1 on a five-game road trip. ??? LW David Ullstrom has at least one point in four consecutive games. ??? Penalty-killing places third in league with 94.1 percent success rate.

  • Hidden stat:

    Penguins are outscoring opponents, 9-1, in first period but being outscored, 8-2, in second.

Now that Tavares is into his fourth professional season, it's clear that it simply was an spot-on scouting report.

Perhaps a bit understated, even.

Tavares enters the Islanders game against the Penguins at 7:38 p.m. today at Consol Energy Center as New York's leader in points (7), assists (6) and ice time among forwards (22:23), and is in a three-way tie for the team lead in shots (15).

His league-wide profile isn't quite as high as it might be if he played for a more prominent franchise, but the coaches who have to devise strategies for containing Tavares, and the opponents charged with executing those plans, are all too familiar with him.

Because he shares a position with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos, among others, Tavares might not be on top of the short list of the game's best centers, but he definitely is on it.

And not all that far down.

"Johnny really makes our team go," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after his team's workout Monday at Consol Energy Center. "I would put him up there with some of the top guys in this league."

Generating goals and assists is the heart of Tavares' game. There's isn't a Selke Trophy in his immediate future, and he isn't likely to win the fastest-skater event at the next all-star game.

That doesn't mean he ignores the softer spots in his game, however, or that he's content with the progress he has made to this point.

"Growing up, I was always a really heavily offensive[-oriented] player," Tavares said. "But I've realized more and more that to play professional hockey and to be a very good NHL player, to try to be one of the best in the league, you have to be good on both sides of the puck, and my play away from the puck is something I've worked really hard at.

"That's come a long way, and I think there's a lot more go to there. My overall skating and the tempo of my game, pace of my game, has improved."

Capuano echoed Tavares' assessment -- "I do see his play away from the puck getting a lot better" -- and attributes the upgrades to the commitment he makes to conditioning in the summer.

Tavares, who never skated a shift in the minors, put up 54 points in his rookie season, and followed that with 67 and 81.

It's hard to miss the career arc there, and the NHL lockout likely is the only thing that will prevent his raw numbers for this season from following it. He would be on pace to pile up 115 in an 82-game season.

One of the few things Tavares hasn't done yet is to appear in a Stanley Cup playoff game, because the Islanders haven't qualified since 2007.

"Obviously, the team success hasn't been there, which has been disappointing," he said. "So there's still a lot to do."

Daunting as it is to try to claim a spot among the top eight in the Eastern Conference, Tavares said that is the Islanders' objective for 2013.

"Our goal is to get there," he said. "Do whatever it takes."

However far the Islanders get someday, odds are Tavares will have led them there, because he is the undisputed cornerstone of the franchise.

"If you look at Crosby and you look at [Washington's Alexander] Ovechkin ... it would be tough not to put Johnny in that category, as the face of the New York Islanders," Capuano said.

That comes with pressures to perform and produce, but Tavares seems to embrace those challenges, even while acknowledging that his accomplishments are inexorably linked to those of his teammates.

"It takes a full team to succeed," he said. "But knowing that I get a lot of attention and that a lot is expected out of me, I enjoy that."

NOTES -- The Penguins are expected to update the status of injured defenseman Matt Niskanen today. Neither the nature of his injury, which happened in the first period of a 2-1 shootout victory Sunday in Ottawa, nor his prognosis has been revealed. ... Islanders defenseman Brian Strait, claimed off waivers from the Penguins Jan. 18, is averaging 17 minutes, 50 seconds of ice time through five games. ... New York is expected to be without defenseman Travis Hamonic, who injured an ankle in a 5-4 overtime loss Sunday in Winnipeg. ... The Penguins had an unscheduled day off Monday.

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Dave Molinari: and Twitter: @MolinariPG.


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