Tavares has got a handle on it

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

He's been touted as the next big NHL star since he was 14.

He was the consensus top pick in the draft two years before he was eligible.

The big day finally came for John Tavares, who made his NHL debut in an exhibition game against the Edmonton Oilers last night at Rexall Place.

"I'm a little nervous and excited, but we got to the rink pretty early, which gives you time to sit down and relax and make sure you have everything ready to go," he said before the contest. "But definitely, I'm sure once I get out in the warm-up, I'll get a little nervous and there'll be a little jitters, but I think that will be good for me.

"Obviously, this is the biggest stage, playing in the National Hockey League, it's the highest level. It's a different environment and this is a step in the learning curve for me. I'm handling it the best I can, and the veterans, the staff and everyone else around me has been very good at helping me handle it."

Less than a week into training camp, the Islanders have already been impressed with their budding star, even with him battling the flu for the first few days of it.

FRANCHISE PLAYER

Tavares is expected to be the face of the franchise for many years to come in New York and the Islanders are treading cautiously with their precious commodity.

"I don't think there is anybody that quite compares to John," said Islanders head coach Scott Gordon. "He's obviously been in the spotlight for a long time and he's handled himself like he's a 10-year NHL vet.

"He does a really good job of keeping his emotions in check, but saying that, I can imagine being in an NHL uniform and playing in an NHL building he's going to have some jitters and that's to be expected."

Tavares, who turns 19 on Sunday, has been in the limelight since receiving an exceptional player exemption, allowing him to play in the Ontario Hockey League at 15.

The following year he broke Wayne Gretzky's OHL record for most goals as a 16-year-old with 72. In four years of junior, the Mississauga native finished with a league record 215 goals and 433 points. He also won a pair of gold medals with Canada's World Junior team.

"If he scores 50 goals and adds 50 assists this year, that would be a great start for him," joked Gordon. "Quite honestly, just like the rest of our younger players, we want him to grow and develop through the course of the year. The first half for him is probably going to be about getting acclimated to the pro game and getting familiar with our system of play, just like it was for Josh Bailey. Whatever production he has is going to be a bonus and just from what we've seen so far, we're fairly confident he's going to be able to produce."

EXPERIENCED TUTOR

In order to help Tavares acclimatize to life in the NHL, the Islanders have paired him up with veteran Doug Weight.

The two played on the same line last night against the Oilers and are rooming together at training camp.

Weight was 19 when Tavares was born.

"His game, the hands he has, the patience with the puck, there are obvious reasons he was the first overall pick," Weight said. "Everyone asks about the pressure. He's had this pressure for four or five years already. The hard part is behind him, getting the draft behind him and the butterflies out tonight.

"He expects to be great, he wants to be great. He expects to win Stanley Cups. I'm not here to put any goals on him, I'm not going to be like Sparky Anderson and call him the next Mickey Mantle before the season starts. I don't think you have to make the Hall of Fame the first time you're on the ice. He just has to play the game, learn the game, come on in and adapt. The cream will rise with his talent."

DEREK.VANDIEST@SUNMEDIA.CA


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