John Tavares picked the perfect stage to launch his late-season candidacy for the Hart Trophy, but the reality is the possible MVP you see before you now has been four years in the making.
When Tavares came into the NHL, he did so as the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Ontario League, but in an effort to prove he wasn’t a one-dimensional player, he focused on becoming a better playmaker. The result was that he developed into more of a set-up guy than a sniper. But once a goal-scorer, always a goal-scorer. When Tavares was a lacrosse phenom as a kid, he filled the net by being able to get the ball out of pocket as quickly as it got in. And he channeled that inner lacrosse player over the summer and through this season.
As a result, Tavares scored his 25th and 26th goals of the season in the New York Islanders 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night to remain in the chase for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Prorated over a regular 82-game season, that translates to 48 goals.
“This summer I got back to getting pucks off quick,” Tavares said. “I found the best goal-scorers in the league are guys who get their shots off quick. When they have that little bit of room and little bit of time, they’re able to get it off and pick their spots. It’s good to see it pay off.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the guy scored 72 goals as 16-year-old with a woeful Oshawa Generals team. Part of it is getting the puck off your stick, but part of it is keeping the puck on your stick, too. And in that respect, Tavares has become a little more selfish, in a good way.
“I’ve always tried to be unpredictable and find the best option that’s going to result in putting the puck in the net,” he said.
Two other areas where Tavares has improved significantly are his skating and his ability to protect the puck. As far as skating is concerned, he was never terrible, but he certainly didn’t look so great getting from one place to another on the ice. But working for the past four summers with renowned power skating instructor Dawn Braid has translated into far better foot speed. Tavares now has a much better stride, trading in his wide stance for a much more efficient one, which has resulted in longer strides and more power.
The skating and the strength go hand-in-hand. Had Tavares simply become stronger and more powerful without concentrating on his technique, he just would have developed into a more powerful choppy skater who tore up the ice more.
“One of John’s biggest problems coming out of junior hockey was that he was an extremely wide tracker and he didn’t get any glide,” Braid said. “You can have all the power in the world but if you don’t have glide, you don’t have speed and efficiency.”
He’s also, predictably, much stronger now than he was when he broke in as an 18-year-old. His core strength is now at an NHL level, which helps him both with his explosiveness and his ability to avoid getting knocked off the puck.
“Dawn has done some great things on the ice with me technically,” Tavares said. “And my trainer, Richard Clark, has made me much stronger and a much better athlete. It’s always been my goal to become a better athlete. Being able to move on the ice better, being able to move and being more mobile leads to being more efficient as a player.”
The Islanders certainly see him as more efficient. Veteran Brad Boyes, who plays on a line with Tavares and Matt Moulson, is more than willing to endorse Tavares’ MVP candidacy. There is little doubt that Tavares has helped Boyes’ renaissance as a goal-scorer and had an enormous impact on Moulson’s production. If you’re looking for a player who makes people around him better, Tavares is not a bad choice.
“I think with the MVP you have to look at it in the context of what he does for the team,” Boyes said. “And when you look at it that way, he’s our guy, there’s no question about that.”
With just over a week left in the season, there are realistically five contenders for MVP – Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Tavares, Sergei Bobrovsky and Jonathan Toews. Missing a quarter of the season will undoubtedly hinder Crosby’s chances, but is that any different than Ovechkin’s indifferent and unproductive play for the first half of the season? Tavares, meanwhile, has been very good from start to finish.
And even if he doesn’t win the Hart this year, you’d have to think there is some hardware in his very near future.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.