The trade deadline has passed, the playoffs are a month away and the Oilers and Sabres have been mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
Or, it’s officially late in the NHL season.
With fewer than 20 games left of everyone’s schedules, we’re now well past the point where anything can be called a fluke. That goes for playoff contenders, lottery bidders and what were once surprise teams at the top of the standings.
All season long, that short list of surprise teams has included the no-longer-surprising New York Islanders.
The first place, MVP-candidate-having, one-point-off-the-President’s-Trophy-lead New York Islanders, that is.
With New York trending fast towards a worst-to-first finish (if they can fend off the Rangers) in the Metropolitan Division, praise is due where it is deserved. The Islanders have certainly received their share of earned praise this season. But could that praise take the form of hardware in Las Vegas later this year?
Definitely. And if it does, John Tavares is as good a bet as any Islanders player or staffer to collect the honors.
As much as the playoff picture has come into focus, so too have the individual races for the NHL’s many season-ending awards. While the Nashville Predators have been the league’s turnaround darlings for much of the year, their lead on the West and the NHL has dwindled, making room for the Islanders and others to elbow their way into trophy discussions.
And the Islanders very much deserve to be part of a few of those debates, starting with Tavares as a candidate for the Art Ross and Hart trophies.
The Islanders’ first-overall selection in the 2009 draft is rounding into form this season, now that the Isles and GM Garth Snow have put a competitive team around him. Tavares leads the Islanders in each of the three biggest scoring categories with a 33-39-72 line, and those 72 points are good enough to pace players on every team not named the Islanders, too.
As of Wednesday morning, Tavares leads the NHL scoring race with a three-point cushion over Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and a five-point lead on Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, tied at 67 points.
The Metropolitan Division features the top-five scoring leaders in the league, and each among them is an established superstar. Right now, Tavares leads them all.
While the individual race to the Art Ross Trophy could be within his grasp, the more impressive title might be the Hart Trophy, awarded to league MVP. Right now, the award seems to be Carey Price‘s to lose. However, goalies don’t often capture that title, what with having their own specific title in the Vezina Trophy.
History favors skaters, especially forwards, in the MVP debate. Not since Jose Theodore in 2002 has the award gone to a non-forward. If there are any forwards to snag the honors from Price this season, it might just be Tavares.
Such a move shouldn’t come as a surprise. Tavares is the leading scorer on the third-highest scoring team in hockey, one that is an injured goalie or extended goal drought away from falling off the perch in the Metropolitan.
New York, despite being just a point off the NHL lead, ranks 22nd in overall defense (goals against per game) and has the second-worst penalty killing group in the NHL. That they are still atop the division, a spot they’ve held for the better part of two months now, is due exclusively to their relentless offense.
That offense is led, in all ways, by Tavares.
His counterparts in the Art Ross race could be considered his closest competition, now that Patrick Kane’s injury will keep him out until deep in the postseason. However, Malkin and Crosby have one another to compete with as the best player on their own team. Ditto Ovechkin and Backstrom. While those players fuel their respective team’s success, they also draw attention from each other in the bid for individual hardware.
That Tavares is leading the league in scoring without a counterpart on the order of a Backstrom or Ovechkin to help draw defensive attention — and that his Islanders are leading the Penguins and Capitals within the division, at that — makes his work all the more notable.
New York is going to be in the running for a number of awards. They’re only a point off the pace for the President’s Trophy with about 15 games left on everyone’s ledger. Jack Capuano has the chance to oversee a worst-to-first turnaround and one of the biggest year-over standings jumps in NHL history (as well as one of the best records in Islanders franchise history).
However, this team goes as its captain goes. (Just look at 2014, when he went down with a knee injury and the Islanders fell apart in short order.)
Given all their success this year, it’s likely that Tavares will send New York’s second franchise to the stage in Las Vegas this summer.
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