2009 prospects: John Tavares

By Jason Menard

It’s safe to say that the eyes of the hockey world have been on John Tavares, late of the Oshawa Generals and most recently a member of the Western-Conference-challenging London Knights. For years, he’s been tabbed with the "Next One" label that has felled so many before him. And while the spotlight won’t stop shining, even after he hears his named called to the podium in Montreal, Tavares has shown that he’s as adept stickhandling the media obligations as he is on the ice.

Tavares is quick to deflect attention onto his teammates, but in matters of his on and off-ice composure he prefers to shift the attention a little closer to home.

"It’s probably the way my parents raised me. They always taught me to be respectful. It’s a privilege and I’ve got a great opportunity," Tavares said. "I know there are a lot of people who would like to be in my position, so while times may seem busy and hectic, but you always appreciate what you’re doing and the opportunity I have. It all comes down to the lessons my parents have taught me.

"It’s been huge. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. They’ve been supporting me throughout my whole life, and they’ve supported me through both good and bad — I know they’ll always be there. And I’m very thankful for everything they’ve done."

Michael Del Zotto (NYR) was part of the big post-WJC trade, which saw Tavares shipped to the London Knights for a bevy of players and draft picks. Yet despite the years together — including sharing living accommodations — Del Zotto is still amazed by Tavares’ poise.

"I don’t know how he does it, but he does unbelievable. The media’s all over him and he does a great job. He’s always positive, he always puts his teammates first," Del Zotto said. "I don’t know. I think he’s just gotten used to it. Obviously he’s had a lot of hype since who knows how young he was, but now it’s just a part of his everyday life."

That everyday life has included some extraordinary moments. Earlier this season, Tavares led the Canadian squad to WJC gold in a match against a Swedish squad that featured his biggest draft rival — Victor Hedman. In addition, Tavares’ regular-season totals of 60 goals and 46 assists in 56 games propelled him past Peter Lee’s 33-year-old OHL career goal-scoring record. Tavares finished his career with 215 goals, two ahead of Lee’s career total.

"I think the whole season’s been great really. It’s been a great season all around, every day it’s been a lot of fun. There have been some great memories and highlights that I’ll take from it, so I’m just hoping to make some more in the playoffs," he said. "You really don’t play the game focusing on setting or breaking records, but when you have the opportunity it’s always great accomplishments. I have to give a lot of credit to the people who were around — my teammates and everyone who has been a big part of my career here in the ‘O’. I’m proud of it, but the overall goal is to win a championship and that’s what I’m trying to do here."

Here, now, is London, Ontario. At least until the CHL playoff run. And the Oakville, ON native admitted it was a little challenging leaving the friendly confines of Oshawa, ON — a place he called home for the better part of three-and-a-half years.

"Leaving wasn’t easy, but once I got here you could see the excitement. All the players, my new teammates, and the city — my first game was really exciting," he said. "I went from a big low to a big high and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a great organization and a great place to play, and we’ve got a great team. I’m happy to be in the playoffs with this team.

Tavares’ sterling play has continued on in these OHL playoffs. With 19 points, including nine goals, in the team’s 12 games, Tavares has played a huge role in London’s on-ice success. Knights’ assistant coach Pat Curcio credits his experience under the bright lights — including his WJC experience — for helping him prepare for the post-season run.

"He learned how to win," Curcio said. "You see what it takes to win, you see what kind of roles that even great players — who don’t normally play those roles — have to play to win. The experience was invaluable to him.

Curcio explained that the thing that surprised the coaching staff most of all following the trade was the level of Tavares’ dedication to self-improvement, both on and off the ice. ""His preparation. You don’t see how someone prepares for the game, but obviously being around the pros for last year, in the summer, and the past experience," Curcio said. "He prepares like a pro — he’s at the rink an hour before he’s supposed to be here, he’s stretching and getting prepared, he eats properly and he’s always conscious of his body and what he needs to do to be at his best. That’s what the pros do and that’s what was surprising seeing when he came to London."

Of course, Tavares hasn’t done all his learning on the ice — he’s also an accomplished lacrosse player who is related to the National Lacrosse League’s all-time leading scorer, also named John Tavares. The younger Tavares played the game until he was 16 and said that he learned a lot from his uncle’s poise and composure on the pitch.

"Obviously there are a lot of similarities in both games, the way that they’re played. There are a lot of things — hand/eye co-ordination is a big thing, obviously handing a stick in your hand, rolling off checks, fighting off [opponents] — moving and shooting in tight areas around the net. Both games are very physical so it makes you a lot tougher. Both games helped me in both sports," Tavares said. "I think I learned more from [my uncle] just watching him play than really talking to him much. He always just tells me to go play my game and keep my focus on what I have to do. We talk weekly and he’s been a great influence in my life. I used to see him when he was young; I used to watch him practice all the time.

"I got to see what really made him special and what set him apart from the other players on the field — his dedication, his unselfishness, his leadership, and how much he loved the game. I learned a lot from him."

You can see the lacrosse influence on several aspects of Tavares’ game, such as his upper body positioning, his ability to hang onto the puck — lacrosse is a game where a premium is placed on ball possession — but most notably it’s Tavares’ stickwork that the influence of Canada’s national game shows most. Tavares has an uncanny ability to use his stick to not just bat down pucks in the air, but also to control them. His understanding of passing lanes is superlative and it’s only amplified due to his ability to knock down pucks anywhere from shoulder-height on down.

"His play with his stick is probably better than I’ve ever seen. If you see a guy do that once or twice you might think it’s luck, but when you see it time and time again, you know it’s something special," a scout representing one of the teams drafting in the upper echelon of the draft stated. "A lot of it has to do with his past experience playing lacrosse. If you’ve ever seen the kid play lacrosse you know how much that has helped him in the game."

Del Zotto’s had a front-row seat to Tavares’ career and has had to stop himself from becoming more of a spectator than a teammate. "Just his ability to create offense is unbelievable," he said. "The way he can put the puck in the net is pretty special and his ability to find players is unbelievable too. Anything involved with the puck — I haven’t seen anyone better than him."

With so long under the watchful eye of NHL scouts and hockey fans throughout North America, a scout explained that sometimes people run the risk of overanalyzing Tavares’ play. "Sometimes you get spoiled expecting ESPN highlights every time he touches the puck," he said. "His hockey sense is incredible. He sees the puck so well and knows where it’s going to be.

"It doesn’t look like he’s going at a good place, but his positioning is so strong that he knows how to get in the right place at the right time."

The bright lights have been amplified all year and they’re only getting brighter as the draft approaches. Del Zotto, his former roommate in Oshawa, said draft preparation is the only place where he feels he can offer advice to Tavares.

"He’s a great guy off the ice; as well as on the ice he’s an incredible player. There’s a lot of hype around him, but obviously he’s deserved it," Del Zotto said. "That’s really the only advice I can give him is about the draft. I’ve told him, ever since last year, to not worry about it. That’s something that affected me last year — I worried too much about it and it kind of affected my play at the end of the year. He knows he’s going to go one or two.

"I know he’s going one, that’s what I feel. You just can’t worry about it, you just have to go out and play your game."

Curcio added that Tavares already has the composure, dedication, and talent to make the jump next season. He added that all the extra attention hasn’t impacted him. "He’s obviously been in the pressure cooker for a few years now and he handles it very well," he said. "He understands what it takes for the next level, he prepares as a pro, he acts like a pro and he’s obviously ready for the next level.

"For him, having him projected to be first overall, he’s respected around the game and he handles it all very well. He’s ready to play."

A scout said he wouldn’t have any trouble picking Tavares with the first overall selection, although admits that Hedman wouldn’t be a bad choice for a team with defensive needs.

"I also wouldn’t lose too much sleep at night going with the big guy if you had a need for a defenseman," he said, adding that the clear choice would be Tavares. "I think it’s easy to create a Stamkos/Doughty/Bogosian issue here — it’s more of a media issue and it makes for good print."

Tavares admitted that he would love to be drafted first overall, but he’s not about to let that define his career. "Oh, it’s be great obviously, to have that opportunity and to be in that type of class. There’s not that many people who get to do that," Tavares said. "Obviously it’d be a great honour. At the end of the day, though, you’re going to go to an organization that feels you have something to contribute, and hopefully we’ll be able to work towards bringing a Stanley Cup there.

"That’s what’s going to be more exciting after it’s all done and over, it’s just to be somewhere and be a part of the National Hockey League, which has been my dream for a long time.

And while he’s focused on the playoffs and not read to write the epilogue to his OHL career, Tavares admitted that he’s enjoyed his time in junior and expects to retain much of the experience for the years to come. "It’s great — there are a lot of relationships that I’ll have for the rest of my life and that mean a lot to me," Tavares said. "These are the years of my life that have been so much fun and it’s been a great four years of my life so far. There are a lot of guys that I’m sure I’ll be friends with for a long time.

"That’s what’s so special about this game — it’s the relationships that you create and the people you get to do this with every day."