|John Tavares spoke matter-of-factly about his introduction to the NHL. (QMI Agency/Eric Bolte)
If John Tavares has had a difficult time adjusting to life as an NHL player, few have noticed.
The wunderkind that Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke wanted but couldn't get in the NHL entry draft last June will make his Air Canada Centre debut tonight as the face of the New York Islanders.
Tavares has nine goals and 10 assists in his first 23 NHL games and will have more than 100 family and friends scattered throughout the ACC.
Born in Mississauga and raised in Oakville, the 19-year-old Tavares held court with the media this morning an hour before he skated on to the ice in the Isles’ pumpkin-orange practice sweater. Tavares, who was a scoring machine in junior with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights, spoke matter-of-factly about his introduction to the NHL.
“The strength and size of the guys, that was one thing I had to get used to,” Tavares said. “But now I think I am really starting to find my way. I know what I have to do to be successful. Overall, I think it has gone well, but I want to strive for more.”
Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who was in uniform for Toronto when Wayne Gretzky played in his first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens, has been impressed with what he has seen of Tavares on video.
“This kid is obviously a player to be reckoned with right off the bat,” Wilson said after the morning skates. “John is more physically developed than a guy like Steve Stamkos was last year.”
Burke made lots of noise before the draft about his desire to trade up and select Tavares first overall. In the end, it was nothing more than a lot of hot air, as the Islanders made it clear to Tavares in meetings with him that they would not deal the pick. Burke wound up choosing Nazem Kadri seventh overall.
“At the time, when somebody comes out and says they want you, especially an NHL GM, you realize you’re getting close to where you want to be,” Tavares said. “(The Islanders’) intentions all the way were to keep the pick. I’m fortunate they picked me first, and I could not be happier.”
Veteran Isles defenceman Andy Sutton knew that Tavares was special long before he met the kid, but he found himself taken aback with Tavares’ maturity.
“I’m honestly surprised at how professional he is for such a young kid,” Sutton said. “He does all the things that took me years to learn. Really methodical, well-prepared for every game. You would think John has been in the league for 10 years. He is impressive to watch.”
The Leafs (4-11-6) will have the same lineup, for the most part, that beat Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals on Saturday night. Defenceman Jeff Finger has a lower-body injury and will be replaced by Garnet Exelby.
The Islanders (8-8-7), who are finishing a seven-game road swing, have lost their past two games. Goalie Dwayne Roloson is expected to start in goal.
Tavares was asked about the first Leafs game he attended as a kid. He was eight or nine years old and couldn’t remember if it was St. Louis or Tampa Bay at the Gardens, but recalled that Mats Sundin scored on a “beauty backhand.”
Is Tavares still a Leafs fan, he was asked?
“Uh, no, not anymore,” Tavares said, deadpan, and drawing laughter.
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