OTTAWA - Perhaps it’s still open to debate - there’s a lot of hockey left to be played in this World Junior Championship and the rest of this season - but you’d have to think John Tavares is beginning to make a mockery out of the race for No. 1 overall with Victor Hedman.
Tavares came into this WJC with much to prove and he has been spectacular. Despite playing in only 10 games in two world junior tournaments, Tavares is Canada’s all-time goal leader with 12 career goals and, more importantly, is fashioning one of the all-time great one-year WJC performances ever.
Records are not complete, but if Tavares keeps up his torrid pace and leads Canada to its fifth straight gold medal, he stands an excellent chance of having the most productive WJC of any 18-year-old draft eligible player in history. With eight goals and 12 points in four games, Tavares is just six behind Jaromir Jagr, who scored 18 points in 1990 for Czechoslovakia at the age of 18. But that year Jagr played seven games and Tavares can only play a maximum of six. Jagr averaged 2.57 points per game in that tournament and Tavares is producing at a clip of three per game so far.
(Of course, Wayne Gretzky was a month shy of his 17th birthday when he scored eight goals and 17 points for Canada in the 1978 tournament, but failed to lead his team to the gold medal.)
Tavares’ tour-de-force performance in Canada’s 7-4 win over the United States Wednesday night punctuated what has been a brilliant tournament for him so far. These eyes have seen Tavares play several times in person this season and while he is always the best player on the ice, he looks a little bored. That’s not the case here where Tavares has elevated his game and his team.
“I’ve tried to…I think everyone wants to elevate their game at this time of the year,” Tavares said. “I’ve really tried to mature and become a leader. I want to be the guy who is looked at to lead on and off the ice.”
Well, he has certainly done that on the ice. Without his two goals to get Canada back in the game after going down 3-0 to the USA, Canada would find itself playing in a quarterfinal game Friday instead of having a couple of days off. His second goal of the game off a turnover by Montreal Canadiens prospect Ryan McDonagh, was not only the turning point of the game, but a thing of beauty.
“Now that’s a big-time goal,” said Canadian coach Pat Quinn. “Those were two big goals and maybe we didn’t have anyone who could score them…that second one, not everybody can do that sort of thing. As far as giving him credit, media-wise we always do that. We pick one guy we want to put a crown on because someday you want to see him fail. That’s how it usually works.”
Quinn is often guilty of being a conspiracy theorist, but he does have a point with Tavares. For the past three years, Tavares has been pegged as the first overall pick in 2009, but lately people seem to have been looking for warts in his game. Hedman emerged as a serious and legitimate challenger for No. 1 status this season, but part of that was because Tavares’ stock had dropped as well.
But if Tavares’ performance in this tournament continues, don’t count on that happening again, particularly if he is traded by the Oshawa Generals to a contender as most people expect he will be in the next 10 days, where he’ll presumably have the opportunity to show his skills in more big games.
The word is the London Knights want to make a deal for him and the Windsor Spitfires want to prevent the Knights from getting him, so they’re in the mix as well. Either way, it looks as though Tavares will use his performance here as a springboard to a big second half of the season.
Canadian forward Zach Boychuk, who took a shot in the ankle and left the arena on crutches Wednesday night appears to be well on his way to mending in time for Canada’s semifinal game against the winner of the quarterfinal between Russia and the Czech Republic.
Quinn said X-rays were negative for a break and that Boychuk’s condition had improved significantly overnight. And with an extra day off, he should be ready to play Saturday.
“He has been one of our better forwards, in my opinion,” Quinn said. “Making big plays for us and part of what has been, through the 12 or 13 day period, our best line probably.”
BUT WHO IN GOAL?
The question isn’t quite as clear in goal, where Quinn faces a decision between Dustin Tokarski and Chet Pickard. Pickard’s numbers are far better and Tokarski had a rough first period in the game against the Americans, but was brilliant in the final two periods and made several spectacular saves.
“We think about it all the time, but we haven’t come to any firm decisions,” Quinn said. “Let’s face it, when you give up that many goals it’s not pretty, but when you analyze it those first three goals were just three big bonehead plays in front of (Tokarski).”
NO FURTHER ACTION
The International Ice Hockey Federation directorate met after the preliminary round of the tournament and decided not to impose any further discipline on any players from either Canada or the USA after a first-period melee in the game Wednesday night.