Ever since the New York Islanders fell from power in the late 1980’s, there has been something strangely insular about the team’s existence – and this is to say nothing of where they play.
They won those 4 Stanley Cups in a row beginning in 1980 and then quietly drifted out of sight as time took it course and their stars broke down. By the early 2000’s, after a good decade of futility, those once-dynastic Islanders had the feel of an abandoned factory building. There was once something big happening here, but it’s hard to imagine now.
As a result, the team struggled to attract the talent that it once raised on the farm. (Nassau Coliseum, something of an abandoned factory building itself, didn’t help their cause either.) Thin recruitment was then compounded by poor draft decisions and trades like this one, leaving the Islanders a bland bunch of unproven youngsters, veteran castoffs…and Trent Hunter. Lacking any sort of non-regional appeal, the rulers of the NHL’s last great reign faded into irrelevance.
Then came the 2009 draft. The Islanders, who had finished last in the NHL that season, held the first overall pick in their hands. There was little doubt who to spend it on.
For while the Isles were struggling to score from October to April, 18-year-old wunderkind John Tavares was finding it quite easy in the OHL. Tavares put up 32 goals and 50 points with the London Knights in the 2008-09 season, cementing his status as the best player on the table. By the time the draft rolled around in June, “The Next One”, as he had come to be known in Canada, was so clearly the number one pick he had completely monopolized the event.
We’d seen this sort of thing happen before. Sidney Crosby was such a coveted asset in 2005 that the entire draft that summer was referred to as the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes. When a player comes along with Gretzkyian hype, no one else really seems to matter. (A tip of the hat to Crosby for making the comparison legitimate.) The Penguins were the lucky winners that summer, landing Sid the Kid with the Most Anticlimactic First Overall pick in NHL history. What followed was a veritable change in the hockey fan’s subconscious – a sudden, inescapable interest in the Penguins, despite the team’s on-ice product.
Tavares inspired the same kind of intrigue in his first season with the Islanders. Though his team was pretty much awful, the young superstar made them interesting. For the first time in a long time, the hockey world was paying particular attention to the Islanders, curious to know hey, how’s that kid doing? Tavares, simply by being there, made the Isles relevant again.
Tavares, like Crosby, has lived up to the hype. He led the Islanders in scoring in each of his first four seasons, ultimately earning an MVP nomination in 2012-13. This year, he has raised his game to a dazzling level and currently ranks second in the NHL with 64 points through 53 games. (You-know-exactly-who is leading the pack.) In the process, he has made the Islanders a fun team to watch again, and by the end of last season the team was relevant, first and foremost, because they were good.
The NHL has responded to Tavares’ sparkling play by marketing him for all he’s worth. The league seems genuinely proud to call him a hockey player, eager to equate their product with his name. The Islanders, for example, are no longer so. They are now John Tavares and the Islanders, the gifted center the lead act in a travelling show.
Last week, John Tavares and the Islanders were featured on NBC’s NHL Revealed, a 24/7-esque production that follows the best players in the game. In the series premiere, the spotlight was placed not on Crosby, not on Patrick Kane, not on Henrik Lundqvist, but on Tavares, the leading scorer for the resurgent Islanders. Those watching saw the Islanders win twice and Tavares record a hat trick against the Stars. Both the superstar and his team looked very impressive.
If NBC keeps the focus on Tavares and the Isles keep winning, the team stands to benefit immensely. The Islanders are still in the process of restoring their reputation, which, in the late 90’s, had been sullied by a leaky arena, a dwindling fan base and a losing team. But all that has changed since the arrival of Tavares, who, for all we know, is patching the Nassau Coliseum roof when he’s not scoring goals. Slowly, the Islanders are regaining the league’s respect, and with it some legitimate appeal. Uniondale, NY is still far from the hockey hub it was in the early 80’s, but it’s also not the depressing sinkhole it was made out to be a decade or so ago. (With the Isles moving to Brooklyn after next season some of this might feel irrelevant, but the team’s brand goes beyond their immediate location.)
NHL Revealed, you can bet, isn’t just being taken in by the fans. This is the kind of show that the players watch as well, as their widespread reaction to HBO’s 24/7 would indicate. The more they see the Islanders in a favorable light, the more they’ll consider them as a future destination. And who knows? Maybe the next big free agent that Garth Snow sets his sights on will have watched the show and decided to give the Islanders a chance. Either way, the possibility of playing alongside Tavares would be allure enough for me.