September 10, 2013

The Moment We've Been Waiting for: Tavares Named Captain

On Monday, the Islanders made the worst kept secret of the past few months official as they named John Tavares as their captain. Tavares will be the 14th player in team history to wear the 'C' on his sweater.

The vacancy came after the Isles parted ways with Mark Streit, who after a strong first two seasons with the Isles lost one due to injury and often was an underachiever from that point forward. When word came out that Streit was looking for north of $5 million, the decision for the Isles was easy and they went in the right direction.

The decision on who to replace him for captain might have been even easier, despite some factions of fans who felt that Kyle Okposo would have been a good choice. Okposo's career as a player has been quite odd, a shoulder injury perhaps affecting his trajectory and setting him back a few years. He's been maddening most times, particularly when you realized that he hasn't been coming to camp in the best conditions that he could have been.

Okposo might have finally figured it out in the playoffs and the light seems to have stayed on - he's talked this summer of changing his offseason routines and about training with Tavares. Be that as it may, this has been Tavares's team since his name was called in June 2009. We just needed to go down a path for a few years, and we've done so, ultimately ended up with the Isles making a playoff appearance in year four of the Tavares era.

It's amazing to think of what Tavares has done for this team already (and how much more is to come). It's more than anyone has done really since the dynasty years. When I think of Tavares and reflect on what he has accomplished, I think about the difference from year one and two. The Islanders had a very strong rookie who put up 26 goals but seemingly fell half the time when he was taking his shifts. Knowing the skating was his weakest asset, he spent countless hours working at it with strength coaches. He came back with an impressive second season, with all of us shaking our heads that he improved one of the only knocks anyone could find on his game by leaps and bounds. That is what Tavares is all about. He embraced being on the team that was the laughingstock, and is determined to throw it back in everyone's faces as he takes it personally.

His teammates love him for this, and his no quit attitude has permeated throughout the locker room.

I'll never forget when I went to the Isles media day in September 2011, as the team opened up camp. Group A was on the ice, and Group B was awaiting their turn. Most of the players from this group were gathering at the glass in front of the tunnel where the Isles home locker room is. On the other side of the rink (the away team side), one player sat by himself - newcomer Evgeni Nabokov, who spurned the team's attempt to acquire him on waivers months earlier. A second player went over to join him and engage him in a chat. It was clear to me then who was going to be this teams spokesperson on and off the ice for several years as Tavares got to know his new goaltender.

Nabokov and Tavares seemed to hit it off right away, and you can see how strong that bond remains today with the two of them constantly interacting with each other and cracking jokes. Tavares seems to be a guy people have gravitated towards, which is ironic when you think of his personality. Although he might seem reserved at times, I can assure you he isn't. He's honest about anything you ask him, and that no nonsense way about him is what makes other players realize he's serious. This is all playing a part in changing the perception.

To me, selecting the next captain was never an issue. In years past you can always think of two or three deserving candidates to take on this role. But now, with the way things are and have gone, there really was never any competition for this role. This team has struggled so long to find that identity and to be taken seriously, and years of frustration came to a head this season with a playoff berth and a hard fought six game series against a Penguins team that saw Tavares show up in several key situations for his club.

I'm not concerned about Tavares having too much on his shoulders, which is rightfully a concern for any new team captain. This guy had been a leader at every level, even when he was one of the youngest players. He's taken every ounce of negativity thrown towards his team and thrived off of it, using it as fuel to make him and his teammates better.

This is what we all envisioned in 2009. We knew this guy was a future leader. We knew that things would turn around. It's taken longer than we've all expected, and there's still a lot of work to be done to prove this team is the real deal after doing quite well for themselves in a strike shortened season. But as far as players go, the Islanders have the right guy representing the team as their leader going forward. We've reached a point where on ice leadership is no longer a deterrent in taking the next step.

- Chris

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