UNIONDALE, N.Y. – John Tavares’ confident stride, friendly wave, broad smile and polished words didn’t give away nervousness that had to be running through him on his first real day as the face of the New York Islanders.
Not even two weeks after the 18-year-old centre from Ontario lived a dream by going No. 1 in the NHL draft, Tavares dealt with the reality that he’s joining a team in the early stages of a rebuilding process and coming off the worst record in the league.
He said the right things Wednesday after he was introduced to a crowd of about 500 loyal fans and drew applause and cheers from the die-hards, who came to Nassau Coliseum in the middle of the summer with hopes of better times ahead in the winter.
Tavares’ name and face were plastered on the centre-ice scoreboard that was lowered to provide a backdrop to the makeshift stage on the bare arena floor. Season-ticket holders bought T-shirts with his name and No. 91 on the back, and yelled encouragement at him.
To say he’s being counted on to restore lost glory would be a gross understatement.
“I don’t think I’m looking to be the saviour. I’m just one player of many, part of a team and an organization to bring a winning tradition back here,” Tavares said.
The trouble is, playoff-starved Long Islanders are expecting big things from him and the young core of players such as past first-round picks Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey.
Patience has worn thin.
The Islanders have made the playoffs only once since 2004 and they haven’t won a postseason series in 16 years.
There seems to be a plan to build from within, but that takes time. With a small budget that leaves little room for free-agent signings, there are no quick fixes. They had to hit rock-bottom to be in position to grab Tavares.
Throw in the franchise’s uncertainty as it waits for political clearance to rebuild the Coliseum while threats that the club could relocate surround it, and it’s a trying time to root for the team that once owned the NHL with four straight Stanley Cup titles in the early 1980s.
“I know its been a long time since the city and the team have had that (success),” Tavares said. “I’m looking forward to working with a young group of guys to grow and contribute in a big way.”
Tavares will turn 19 before he plays his first NHL game, and there is only so much that a rookie teenager can be expected to deliver right away.
Whether he gets off to a fast or slow start, he’ll have to be watched closely by teammates, coaches, and the front office to make sure he doesn’t take on too much, too soon.
He might be the future of the club, but the future isn’t determined in the first month or year.
Veteran forward Doug Weight tops the short list of experienced players that dot the Islanders’ roster.
No. 1 goalie Rick DiPietro also fits into that group, but his playing status is cloaked in secrecy after he was limited to only five games last season due to injury.
“We’ll have plenty of veterans, leaders, to surround him and help guide him through those murky waters, whether it’s on the ice or off-the-ice adjustments that he needs to make,” general manager Garth Snow said of Tavares.
“We feel we have enough support around John and all our young players where if they have an issue, whether it’s on the ice or off, they can seek out one of us. We’ve all been through it.”
DiPietro, the top overall pick in the 2000 NHL draft, once was the face of the franchise. That title is already shifting toward Tavares despite the fact DiPietro is under contract for 12 more seasons.
“You’re going to gauge how players are handling things and put them in the best positions to succeed,” second-year head coach Scott Gordon said. “The biggest thing is we don’t want (Tavares) to feel like he’s got to be the guy every night.
“We want it to be a smooth transition for him where hopefully he can find his way and not make him feel like all the pressure is on him.
“He’s a pretty mature kid. He’s been through a lot in his experiences with hockey. I’m sure if there is anybody that is going to be quick to handle everything, it’ll be him.”
Tavares is used to challenges.
He was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 Ontario Hockey League draft when he was 14. He led that league last season with 58 goals in 56 games, and finished his OHL career with a record 215 goals.
Only the Colorado Avalanche finished last season with fewer goals than the 201 scored by the Islanders, who posted an NHL-worst 61 points (26-47-9).
“As a team, when you’re losing and then when you’re winning and you experience it, you really become a family when you go through that,” Bailey said.