John Tavares is one of the elite players in the NHL, and the New York Islanders know it. While that may not sound like a problem, in reality it may be one of the biggest issues for the Islanders organization.
Since Tavares entered the NHL, New York has made it their goal to become Stanley Cup contenders. They’ve made it to the postseason three times in Tavares’ seven seasons in the NHL, including a stretch of three consecutive seasons to start their captain’s career. While Tavares consistently leads the Islanders offense, New York continues to fail at progressing deep into the postseason.
It would be easy to place the blame on the team’s premier star, but the reality, as usual, has more to do with the inability to surround Tavares with secondary offensive talent.
First off, the Islanders defense is no longer a problem. Now, the Islanders boast one of the best defenses in the game, in addition to strong goaltending. Last season, they hosted the “best fourth line in hockey” in Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck, but Martin left for the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, and Cizikas received a $16.75 million extension, pricing him out of a fourth line role.
Garth Snow learned that the Islanders need depth to have a successful team, but he failed to understand that sometimes depth players are no more than depth players. Cizikas serves as one example, while Clutterbuck serves as another. Clutterbuck contributes to the Islanders as a valuable bottom-six forward, but the player he was acquired for, Nino Niederreiter, would be a massive improvement as a top-six contributor.
The top six is the main issue for New York. Tavares has been a mainstay, something that the Islanders have taken advantage of in building their roster. While Sidney Crosby has been surrounded with the likes of Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, and James Neal at times, Tavares has played with Brad Boyes, P.A. Parenteau, Ryan Strome, and an assortment of players that do not belong on the first line of a contender.
New York has asked Tavares to carry his linemates time and time again, a task the Canadian forward has always been up for, but it also diminishes his ability to compete at the highest level possible.
While Kyle Okposo was a helpful constant previously, this offseason New York let the long-time Islander leave for the Buffalo Sabres. Elsewhere on Tavares’ line, the Islanders have chosen not to allow him the same chemistry the Pittsburgh Penguins allow Crosby in Chris Kunitz.
Kunitz’s role is simple: work with Crosby to maximize the Penguins’ top star’s performance. The role was so clear that Kunitz was included on Team Canada in the 2014 Olympics to allow Crosby to play his best hockey.
Tavares’ “Kunitz” was Matt Moulson until the Islanders traded Moulson in a disastrous deal for Thomas Vanek in 2013. While Vanek contributed in his time in New York, Tavares lost his most regular linemate and the Islanders suffered the remainder of the season.
Since then, he has continued to see a rotation of wingers playing on his line, with the newest addition being one-time Islander P.A. Parenteau. Parenteau was signed to a one-year deal this offseason, so it looks like this trend will continue even after this season.
The Islanders’ top six consists of Andrew Ladd, Tavares, Parenteau, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Ryan Strome as currently constructed. While Ladd should be a positive addition to New York, the group consists of only two surefire top six forwards in Ladd and Tavares, putting the offensive burden directly on Tavares’ shoulders.
Returning to Crosby, Pittsburgh is home to a top six of Kunitz-Crosby-Hornqvist, Conor Sheary-Evgeny Malkin-Phil Kessel. There is a major difference between the two groups, as Crosby has an abundance of backup on offense. Not so for the Islanders.
Tavares has proven he can handle the pressure, but on a serious contender, he shouldn’t have to.