Evgeni Malkin has moved up to challenge Penguins teammate Sidney Crosby for the NHL scoring lead. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin has soared to 21 goals, St. Louis’ Alex Steen to 20 before he played Monday night.
Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Kane and Henrik Zetterberg, who have gotten their names on the Stanley Cup in the past decade, also are near the top of the NHL in points.
There, nestled firmly among his fellow stars and trophy winners, is New York Islanders center John Tavares, at 23 the youngest player among the top 20 league scorers with 11 goals, 30 points in 27 games.
He’s also the only one who plays for a team that is last in its division.
The Islanders play host to the Penguins tonight at Nassau Coliseum in a first-last Metropolitan Division matchup. They snapped a five-game streak of regulation losses — one of them a 3-2 decision against the Penguins — with a 3-2 overtime loss Saturday to Washington. They are 2-10-1 in their past 13 games.
“This is where you learn a lot as a young captain, when you’re going through a stretch like we’re going through,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said when the Islanders were at Consol Energy Center for the Nov. 22 game.
Capuano named Tavares team captain on Sept. 9, 11 days before he turned 23.
“Since day one, he believes in the system, he believes in his teammates,” Capuano said. “The way that he practices, habits and details are everything. John has all those ingredients in his game.”
Penguins veteran defenseman and alternate captain Brooks Orpik holds Tavares in high regard for his talent, but feels for him as a young captain on a young, struggling team.
“It’s tough,” Orpik said. “I don’t know him personally, but he seems like a pretty mature kid for his age. But there aren’t a lot of older guys there to kind of help him along, which I think is a tough situation for him.
“I can’t speak for his situation, but I think it would be a little easier if he had a few more older guys who were a little more experienced to kind of help him along.”
Tavares, who was the first player selected in the 2009 NHL draft, has his teammates’ attention for the way he conducts himself, a lot like the way Crosby has handled his captaincy from a young age.
“You definitely see that when it comes to John,” said Islanders center Casey Cizikas, 22. “He’s the hardest worker on and off the ice. I got to witness that this summer, working out at the same gym as him.
“He has that joking side to him, which is fun, but once it’s game time, it’s like a switch goes off and he’s a new person. He’s focused. He’s ready to go. He does whatever it takes to get the troops going.”
Before this swoon, Tavares and the Islanders seemed to have a breakthrough last season. The team made the playoffs after six years of missing out. Tavares had three goals, five points in his first playoff series as the Islanders gave the Penguins a competitive run in the first round, losing in six games.
Tavares was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP after he racked up 28 goals, 47 points in the lockout-shortened 48-game season.
“John Tavares is a very deserving candidate of the MVP nomination last year,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “I still would have voted for [finalist] Sidney Crosby, even though he was out a substantial number of games [because of a broken jaw] at the end of the season.
“But John Tavares is every bit an MVP as anybody else in the league last year. He’s that good and that first-team, and he’s that again for his team. It wasn’t just last year. He’s emerged as that.
“We certainly prepare as though we’re playing against an elite player.”
Tavares’ steady improvement reminds Orpik of another young star, Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos, who was challenging for the NHL scoring lead before a broken leg last month.
“A lot like Stamkos, he’s just way more consistent and he’s way stronger on the puck. That’s the biggest thing,” Orpik said of Tavares. “He’s never going to be an overly physical guy, but he’s really, really good at shielding the puck and using his body to protect pucks. If he gets a step on you going to the net, he’s really good at holding you off.
“The first couple of years with him and Stamkos, you could see that they had that potential, or that skill, but they’d get a step on you but you could always be strong enough to recover and knock them right off the puck. Now, if they get a step on you, it’s kind of over. Most times, they’re finishing or setting someone else up to finish.”
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.