On Monday, the New York Islanders made John Tavares the 14th captain in franchise history. It was an incredibly unsurprising decision.
Even at the age of 22, Tavares is the team's most accomplished NHLer and its clear on-ice leader. The real question is how far he can take a team coming off an unbelievably bad quarter-century.
That Tavares is a phenomenal talent seems beyond dispute. Last season, he led the team and finished 17th in the league in scoring, recording 47 points in 48 games. Even more impressively, his 28 goals trailed only Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos.
The season prior, Tavares' 31 goals tied for 20th in the NHL while his 81 points were tied for seventh.
It is a remarkable track record, but especially so for a player his age. Centers who were unable to match that pace at the same age include names like Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Getzlaf—all crucial parts of eventual Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Perhaps more interesting are the names just in front of Tavares: three singular young players who have enjoyed vastly different careers.
Eric Staal led the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes in scoring en route to a Cup win. Joe Thornton has enjoyed an incredible career—he was the NHL MVP the year Staal won the Cup—but so far postseason success has eluded him.
Meanwhile, not only has team success eluded Paul Stastny, but he has failed to live up to his early scoring promise.
Individual success, at least, should be attainable.
Like Thornton (first overall, 1997) and Staal (second overall, 2003), Tavares was always seen as a likely impact player at the NHL level, going fist overall in both his OHL and NHL draft years. Stastny's emergence was more of a surprise. The 44th overall pick in 2005 was always a good prospect, but lacked the pedigree of the others.
In Tavares' case, the combination of a brilliant amateur track record and superb early professional results make him as safe a bet as there is to stay in the upper echelon of NHL players.
Team success is a more daunting challenge.
The Islanders have been a bad team for a long time, which has been reflected in their record. Kent Wilson of The Nation Network put it this way:
Between 1988 and 2013, the organization’s record is an appalling 733-921-150-92, for a win percentage of 39 percent. To put that number in context, it is roughly in line with the records of the Carolina Hurricanes or Calgary Flames from this past season. So imagine being the 2012-13 Calgary Flames in perpetuity, except in a crappier rink.
None of that is to say the Islanders are bereft of bright points.
Joining Tavares in the 25-and-under club are a number of good young players. At the NHL level, people like Travis Hamonic, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner in particular stand out as skaters that could contribute in a meaningful way to a contending team.
The prospect pipeline is rich too, with Ryan Strome (ranked as the 13th-best prospect in the world by The Hockey News last year) headlining a group with real talent both up front and on defense.
The Islanders also tend to be underrated as a team. They squeaked into the playoffs last year, but dominated puck possession all season, outshooting most opponents.
Some saw their first-round matchup with Pittsburgh as a mismatch, but the Islanders pushed the Penguins hard in a series that was decided in overtime of the sixth game.
The Islanders might have done even more—finished higher than eighth in the East, beat Pittsburgh in the first round—if not for critical shortcomings in net.
Long Island got some of the worst goaltending in the league during the regular season and Evgeni Nabokov (of the wretched 0.842 playoff save percentage) was only the third-best starter to play in the team's series against the Penguins.
The goaltending needs to be fixed, but the club has other problems.
Last year, the defense relied on Hamonic, 37-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky and then-captain Mark Streit. Streit's gone and Visnovsky's old.
The forward group has lots of good support pieces, but for the time being, Tavares is the only legitimate NHL scoring star. Though the prospect pipeline can fill some of those vacancies, others will need to be addressed by active and competent management.
In Tavares, the club has a legitimate first-line center and a forward who can be the heart of a Stanley Cup contender. The trouble is that, in the New York Islanders, Tavares has a supporting cast still a significant distance away from challenging to win it all.
Advanced statistics courtesy of BehindtheNet.ca.
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