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NHL No. 1 pick John Tavares quickly becoming new face of Islanders

Rick DiPietro's recognizable name and decade-and-a-half long contract certainly suggest he is the face of the New York Islanders.

That is about to change. DiPietro is under contract with the cellar-dwelling Islanders for years to come, but the new franchise player is a 19-year-old forward who has yet to play a regular-season NHL game.

That, too, will change Saturday when John Tavares, the Islanders' consolation prize for finishing with the worst record in the league last season, plays his first game that counts.

And this is no soft-landing spot for the No. 1 pick in the draft. Tavares' first real NHL taste will come against Sidney Crosby and the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

While DiPietro won't be out there with him due to a lingering knee injury, Tavares won't be alone. He joins a young group of prospects that the Islanders hope will resurrect the franchise that has fallen on hard times after their 1980s dynasty produced four straight Stanley Cup titles.

"We don't want him to feel that it all falls on his shoulders. It would be unfair to do that," second-year coach Scott Gordon said of Tavares. "He is going to have his ups and downs. The biggest thing is progress from Game 1 to Game 40, and then where are we at Game 40. Then, hopefully, big strides can be made in the second half."

It has been 26 years since the last of New York's championships, and there is no telling when the next one will come or where the Islanders will be calling home when it does. New York (26-47-9) had a NHL-low 61 points last season and was tied with Atlanta this season for the longest odds to win the Stanley Cup.

Tavares will face the usual pressure that a No. 1 pick does, giving hope to a fan base of a losing team. His numbers in juniors were gaudy and provide encouragement that those stats will translate into NHL success, too.

"I will probably be a little nervous. That will be good," Tavares said. "It will give me a little extra energy and a little excitement."

"I just focus on every day. There is obviously a big picture here, where we want to go as a team. (The attention) has been there for a long time for myself. The way I've handled it, whether it's a good day or a bad day, you just focus on the next and what you can control."

Whether he or the Islanders want to say publicly or think about it behind closed doors, Tavares' ability to turn into a star in the big leagues might go a long way in securing the team's future on Long Island.

Club owner Charles Wang is in a desperate struggle with the Town of Hempstead to get approval to build the Lighthouse Project - which would include a new arena for the Islanders. Wang set a deadline for this week to have a deal in hand or else he would be open to pursuing other options - including possible relocation.

There has already been some flirtation with Kansas City, where the Islanders played a pre-season game a few weeks ago.

Any buzz created quickly by Tavares and fellow youngsters Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey - a pair of other first-round picks entering their second full NHL seasons - would surely help boost Wang's cause.

The Islanders drew under 10,000 for their lone home exhibition game, and they would be well-served by a fast start that increased interest and attendance.

"It's been a couple of tough years," said newly acquired goalie Martin Biron, formerly of Buffalo and Philadelphia. "If you're an Islanders fan, you want to see the Lighthouse Project come to life. You want to see this team get on the ice and win some games. We're hoping that more of these things are going to happen."

"I have been in this building when it's full and the intensity is there and the fans are in it."

DiPietro had been the one who created the excitement with his flashy goaltending style and brash attitude. But he was limited to only five games last season because of knee trouble, and there is no timetable for his return.

The Islanders signed Biron and Dwayne Roloson to pick up the slack. Both have been No. 1 netminders in the NHL, and their arrival suggests DiPietro isn't expected to play anytime soon.

New York went most of last season with an unproven goalie tandem of Joey MacDonald and Yann Danis, who have both moved to new clubs.

"Looking at this team, I see a team that can win a lot of games and surprise a lot of people," Biron said.

On defence, the Islanders are anchored by hard-hitting Brendan Witt and Mark Streit, who led the club in scoring with 56 points - including a team-high 10 power-play goals - in his first season with New York.

Veteran forward Doug Weight is starting the season on the injured list but he will take over as captain for Bill Guerin, who was traded to Pittsburgh last season.

The 38-year-old Weight was elected captain this week by his teammates. Witt, Streit, Okposo and Richard Park will serve as assistants.


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