Tavares learning on the fly

RANDY SPORTAK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:28 AM ET

SASKATOON -- John Tavares didn't lace 'em up against the Flames in Calgary, nor last night in Saskatoon.

Flames fans aren't the only ones disappointed the first-overall selection of the New York Islanders didn't play those couple of games against Calgary.

"I hate watching, in general, so I wish I could play every game," Tavares said yesterday after a morning practice. "But it's about getting ready for the season. You're trying to get your timing back, and this is new for me -- getting my timing at this level. Those things will come."

Tavares is slated to play tonight when the Islanders face the Edmonton Oilers.

Today happens to be his 19th birthday, so he's a year older according to the birth certificate.

Wiser, too, he believes, compared to his first pre-season outing Wednesday in Edmonton.

The player who's been touted as the latest "next one" since he became a teenager skated in nearly 23 minutes of action against the Oilers, collected no points and was a minus-1.

He did take away valuable lessons.

"Make plays quicker," he said. "Mainly just really little things, like the way guys keep on you. When they see an opportunity, they take advantage, so you really have to protect the puck and make a play.

"Those are the things I've been focusing on the past week, making little plays and little things around the net.

"I think I'll feel a lot more comfortable (next game) and realize what's coming at me and understand the game more at this level.

"I want to get better each and every game and be at my best going into the season."

What Tavares' best will be is something worth following over the years.

This is a young man who scored 72 goals for the Oshawa Generals as a 16-year-old, which broke Wayne Gretzky's OHL record, and just kickstarted a brilliant junior career.

He's also under extreme pressure to take a moribund Islanders franchise and turn it around.

"He's been under the spotlight from such a young age, so he knows how to deal with everything," said teammate Josh Bailey, who is barely a year older than Tavares but has a NHL season under his belt.

"His skill will take over and he's gonna be great."

However, that may take time.

During training camp, his linemates have mainly been Doug Weight and Sean Bergenheim, who are both out with groin issues. The Isles also must have plans to try Tavares alongside Kyle Okposo, but that plan must wait until Okposo is back in action following the check he took from Dion Phaneuf a few nights ago.

As good as those players are, Tavares will be looked upon as a saviour.

He's received plenty of advice on how to deal with those Gotham-sized expectations.

"Just focus on playing," Tavares said.

"There's so much that can be going on all the time and distractions, but just play the game and have fun. I've worked for this for such a long time and wanted to be here since I was a little kid, so be here now and enjoy it.

"The expectations will be there, but all the guys have told me not to put too much pressure on myself, enjoy the game and work hard."

Bailey does have some other advice he was willing to share: How to deal with the hours not spent playing.

"You have a lot of down time. You get up early, work hard, go to the rink and then you have the rest of the day. In junior, you have the rest of the stuff during the day, go to a later practice and the day goes by quicker," Bailey explained.

"We keep busy, playing Xbox or ping-pong. Last year, that was a big thing. We had a ping-pong table in the house and played it all the time.

"I got pretty good at it by the end of the year."

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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