OTTAWA – Having successfully dealt with The Monster in Toronto, the Senators now switch their focus to a monster talent from the Toronto area.
On Thursday, rookie John Tavares of Oakville, Ont., plays his first game on Canadian soil since being selected first overall in last June’s NHL draft when the New York Islanders visit Ottawa (Rogers Sportsnet East, 7 p.m. ET).
It’s the home opener for the Senators and adding to the hype is that it comes against the most-talked about up-and-comer since Sidney Crosby arrived in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005.
The Senators earned their first victory of the young season by beating the Maple Leafs 2-1 on Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, spoiling the first NHL start for highly-touted Swedish goaltender Jonas (The Monster) Gustavsson.
They’ll be looking to give Tavares and the Islanders a similar welcome.
“Yeah, we’ve heard a lot about him for sure in the last couple of years,” Senators defenceman Chris Phillips said Wednesday after practice. “He did a lot in juniors and it’ll be exciting to watch him but at the same time, hopefully (we’ll) keep him off the scoreboard.”
Normally a visit from the Islanders wouldn’t cause much of a buzz, but it’s a different story this year with the addition of Tavares. He has been in the public eye since he was granted exceptional player status at age 14 to begin his major junior career in the Ontario Hockey League.
The one Ottawa player who could relate to being that hyped as a teenager, Jason Spezza, missed practice Wednesday to rest “bumps and bruises.” Senators coach Cory Clouston said he’s looking forward to seeing Tavares and the Islanders up close.
“Obviously they’ve got a pretty exciting young hockey player who from all indications doesn’t take a lot of time to adjust,” Clouston said. “He’s shown he belongs right away.”
Clouston was referring to Tavares’s NHL debut on Saturday, which came against Crosby and the Penguins.
Tavares, who just turned 19, recorded his first goal and assist on a night only spoiled by the fact the Islanders were beaten 4-3 in shootout. The Islanders skated at home Wednesday before travelling to Ottawa.
Coincidentally, Tavares will make his Canadian debut at Scotiabank Place, the site of one of his greatest hockey moments. He was named tournament MVP after helping Canada win gold at the world junior hockey championship last January.
Tavares is ready for another turn in the spotlight in his home country.
“I grew up there and at times, especially during the world juniors, there was a lot of attention,” Tavares told New York’s Newsday. “It’s part of the game. It’s part of being a pro.”
Islanders coach Scott Gordon didn’t think the attention would cause a distraction for his team.
“He’s been under the microscope his whole life,” Gordon said of Tavares. “If anybody can handle it, it’s him.”
During the world junior event, Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson watched as Swedish teammate Victor Hedman and Tavares stirred the debate over which player should be drafted first overall. Tavares won out, both by helping Canada beat Sweden in the gold medal game and in being picked by the Islanders. Hedman went second overall to the Tampa Bay Lightning. “He’s an exciting player of course. It’ll be fun to see him,” said Karlsson, who was named top defenceman at the world junior tournament.
“One’s a D and one’s a forward, so it’s hard to compare those two. We both ended up in the finals, so both guys did a good job for their team. I just try to forget we ended up second.”
Much like the Lightning did with first-overall pick Steven Stamkos a year ago, the Islanders have promoted Tavares as a cornerstone of the team’s future. Earlier this week, they began selling authentic pieces of the net from his first goal, mounted and framed with a picture of Tavares and a copy of the game summary.
Following his first NHL game, Tavares posed for pictures holding the puck from his first goal alongside Islanders great and Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Bossy.
Clouston said Tavares doesn’t look like he’ll have much trouble making the jump to becoming an impact player in the NHL.
“I think it’s how you protect him and the environment you surround him with and the situations you put him in,” Clouston said. “You’ve seen players who flop and end up not being what they expected and, vice versa, you’ve seen players right off the bat, they just kind of take off.
“It’s how you handle them, and a lot of it has to do with the character of the person himself as well.”