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Thursday, October 23, 2008
Tavares tries not to let all the talk affect him heading into '09 draft

By Gare Joyce
Special to ESPN.com

John Tavares
John Tavares has 23 points in 13 games this season for the Oshawa Generals.
John Tavares has grown up in hockey's spotlight. On that count, he's hardly unique. He understands what Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros and Sidney Crosby went through. Right now, in his fourth season with the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League, Tavares is living through the pressures they faced, on and off the ice. Fact is, he has been talked about and scrutinized more than all of them.

Gretzky, Lindros and Crosby didn't have to field calls from reporters asking whether they were going to challenge the NHL's draft rules and seek early entry at age 17. They weren't the subjects of rumors of NHL general managers attempting end-runs around the league rules by offering them pro minor-league contracts worth millions.

That's the type of stuff John Tavares has already lived through and learned to shrug off while still in high school. A lot of kids tune in to sports-talk radio to catch the scores of last night's games. Last winter, Tavares was tuning in to see what they were saying about him, what the latest rumor was.

A year ago, all the talk was that Tavares was going to challenge NHL legislation and seek eligibility for the 2008 draft. Players are eligible for a draft if they are 18 years old or turn 18 by Sept. 15 of that year. Tavares barely missed the cutoff. He turned 18 on Sept. 20. For a matter of five days, Tavares had to wait 12 more months to turn pro. Several media outlets reported as fact the story that Tavares and his agents at the time had contacted the NHL to see whether an exception might be made for him. One other rumble around the rink was that either the league or the NHL had contacted the agency first.

A few weeks later, John Ferguson Jr., then the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, suggested the team was looking into the possibility of signing Tavares to a contract with the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs' AHL affiliate. It was never quite clear whether this would be just a one-year deal in an attempt to fill the Marlies' arena or a multiyear deal that would keep Tavares parked in a safe house until he would become an unrestricted free agent. Things were so bad for the Leafs at that point, and Ferguson was so close to the end of his tenure, that this constituted a good news day.

Somewhat lost was the center at the center of all this talk, John Tavares.

There was no avoiding the talk for Tavares. He grew up on the suburban west end of Toronto and has been playing in Oshawa, a half-hour east from the city. Toronto is the 24/7 media capital of hockey, so Tavares could actually turn off his TV and radio and still hear his name in the white noise.

"Those are things you have to deal with," Tavares said. "Both things -- the talk about challenging the draft or signing a deal to play for the Leafs' AHL team -- came as a shock to me. I remember calling my mother and saying, 'What's going on? Can this happen? Is this even allowed?' I was just coming to practice, trying to get ready for another week of games, and there was all this media attention. I tried not to let it distract. I just wanted to go out and do my job.

"I hope it didn't affect my team. I don't know if it did. We had a couple of meetings as a team about the Marlie thing just to let everyone know that it was a rumor circulated by other people and it wasn't anything that I was pursuing. But it was hard. I didn't want to go in the dressing room where there were guys thinking about what I was going to do when we should have been thinking about what we had to do as a team."

In retrospect, it looks like the Generals might have been distracted. They went into last season with a team that looked like a powerhouse, but lost in the OHL conference finals in five games to the Belleville Bulls, including a 10-0 smoking in the series clincher. Injuries were a factor, and so were some battles at the executive level. The team could have and should have been better.

It also looks as though Tavares might have been a little shaken. In the 2006-07 season, he was named the top player in the Canadian Hockey League. That winter, he scored 72 goals, breaking an OHL record set by a 16-year-old Gretzky. But Tavares' numbers dropped last season. He scored 40 goals, which was five fewer than he scored in his first season in Oshawa as a 15-year-old.

He did ring up 78 assists, but Tavares' great talent isn't playmaking. There are lots of set-up guys. No, Tavares is a finisher. Not simply a one-time sniper from the slot like Mike Bossy or Brett Hull in their days. He can do that, but he also has an uncanny knack for picking up garbage -- in that 72-goal season, it seemed like every time he got his stick on a loose puck anywhere around the net, teams were skating to a center-ice faceoff seconds later.

There are a couple of theories about Tavares' drop in production that have nothing to do with the rumors. They're not as sensational, but completely logical.

No. 1: Teams were more successfully keying on Tavares. For instance, in the playoffs, Belleville managed to lean on him and shut him down completely as a scorer. It was not a matter of Tavares' avoiding the heavy traffic -- that's not an issue -- so much as physically getting beaten up and worn down.

No. 2: Tavares had played too much hockey. His season started in August with an eight-game series between Canadian and Russian all-star teams played on two continents. In December, he was back in Europe, the Czech Republic this time, with the Canadian national team at the world under-20s. "He was never fresh, all those high-level games and all that travel," one NHL scout says. "His legs weren't there at the end."

Over the summer, Tavares focused on his strength and conditioning, and it looks like the gym work is paying off on the ice: 14 goals and nine assists in his first 13 games. The added strength seems to have given him a better burst -- more than anything, he looks a little more fluid in his skating.

Tavares is still the object of off-ice talk -- lately it's been tied to the idea that the Generals, in a rebuilding year, would look to trade Tavares to one of the leading contenders. Before that, it was the firing of his agent. And it seems like Tavares' status as the first pick in the draft is now not the consensus as it was a couple of years ago, but a matter of debate: Victor Hedman, a towering defenseman with MODO of the Swedish elite league, has established himself as a threat to that No. 1 perch.

"The first pick would be an honor and an accomplishment," Tavares said. "It's a special class of players that you'd be joining. I know it would motivate me even more to deserve that honor."

Tavares was an amazing two-sport athlete, his other sport being a family passion, box lacrosse. His uncle, also named John, stars for the Buffalo Bandits and is the National Lacrosse League's all-time leading scorer. Some who have played against the younger John say he's even more dominating in the box than he is on the ice. But with the NHL not so far off, he gave up playing in competitive summer leagues.

"I still like to pick up the stick and the ball and throw it around," he said. "I even thought about practicing with my old team. But there's still lots that I have to work on [in hockey]."

Dallas Stars scout Jimmy Johnston, a lacrosse player from back in the day, has seen Tavares in box lacrosse and catches a lot of Generals games.

"You can see things on the ice that carry over from lacrosse," Johnston said. "The way that he feels a checker on his back and can spin off the contact ... his hand-eye ... his toughness standing in when it heats up in front of the net ... his vision, whether it's finding an open man or finding a way to the net. I'm sure lacrosse has been a big factor in the skills that he brings to hockey."

And Johnston is one of the scouts who are trying to mute all the background noise about Tavares to just evaluate his game.

"There will be lots of talk about him, whether it's the agent thing or stuff that's out of his control," Johnston said. "I think he's been around so long -- you know the first games he played for Oshawa, he was just 14 and in against 20-year-olds -- by the fourth season, everybody is picking him apart. But he's a scorer. They're rare. And he's not just a good scorer, but at this level this season, he's in a class separate from the other guys."

Gare Joyce is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.