Ask a relatively unbiased hockey fan who the best player in the world is, and you’ll get a variety of answers. The majority (outside of Philadelphia, of course) will likely say Sidney Crosby. Those who lean towards power and pure goal scoring will counter with Alex Ovechkin. Goalie enthusiasts will point to what Carey Price has done in Montreal. And someone with an eye toward the future might just push all their chips to the center of the table and say Connor McDavid will be better than all of them someday.
Each of those responses comes with a strong argument and, quite frankly, that’s not even the whole list of viable candidates. But one name that rarely seems to get brought up in these discussions is John Tavares. Which is ironic, since he’s consistently one of the game’s top performers.
If you lay out every NHL player’s resume, Tavares’ body of work speaks for itself. He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft and, if anything, he’s exceeded expectations. He’s been a finalist for the Hart trophy each of the last two full seasons that he’s played, he’s taken the New York Islanders from a club that was the punchline of a lot of jokes to the status of perennial playoff contender and he’s routinely among the NHL leaders in total points.
In fact, the 294 points Tavares has posted since the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign put him fourth overall in that category — behind only Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Claude Giroux. And his 1.03 points per game average in that stretch puts him ahead of everyone except Crosby, Malkin and Steven Stamkos. He’s consistent, but not flashy. And — at just 25 years of age — he’s a petty good leader for a young team on the rise.None of this is meant to argue that Tavares is the best player in the NHL. He’s probably not quite at that level yet — though he is certainly elite. And it’s not to suggest that he just gets completely overlooked either, by any means. Anyone who watches the game closely appreciates what he brings to the rink, night in and night out. But he just doesn’t seem to generate the collective hype outside of his city that any of the other players we’ve already mentioned seem to generate. And we haven’t even thrown Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or Tyler Seguin into the equation.
So why is that? There’s probably a few factors at play here. First and foremost, Tavares hasn’t experienced much playoff success yet. Islanders fans will quickly point out that the simple fact he’s gotten them to the postseason in two of the last three seasons (he was injured one of those years) is an accomplishment in its own right. And that’s true. But until viewers across the continent are exposed to Tavares for a prolonged playoff run on the sport’s biggest stage, he’s still going to take a backseat to some other big names when it comes to public perception.
The Isles’ lack of playoff success isn’t his fault though. In 13 postseason games, he’s notched five goals and six assists. And it’s pretty widely accepted that he’s the sort of player that makes the guys around him better. Plus his current deal pays him “just” $5.5 million per season, giving the organization wiggle room and making him arguably the biggest bargain in the league.
On top of the fact that he hasn’t come close to hoisting the Stanley Cup, Tavares isn’t exactly flashy or vocal. Quite the opposite, actually. He’s fun to watch, but he’s methodical, efficient and isn’t prone to talking about how great he is. That last part is refreshing, in a lot of ways — but it doesn’t do much to draw attention his way.
Beyond that, the center position itself isn’t necessarily all that flashy. It’s traditionally the wings who streak up the ice, taking breakout passes and finishing goals. A quality center is harder to find, but they tend to have more responsibilities in their own zone as well.
In a lot of ways, Tavares embodies that description of what it means to be a center — perhaps the most valuable position on the ice, but one that sometimes is under-appreciated because of the many responsibilities that come with it. You have to be good at everything, even the subtle aspects of the game.
Playing for the “other” team in New York likely pushes Tavares under the radar a little as well. The Islanders were great in the early 1980’s, but Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers dominate the headlines around town now. Still, the team in Brooklyn is clearly on the rise, and Tavares is the main catalyst. It’s only a matter of time before he starts capturing some of these individual awards that he keeps nearly winning (in addition to the two Harts, he lost the Art Ross by one point on the final day of the 2014-15 season). And that will almost certainly lead to more team success as well.