Johnston: Tavares sets sights on NHL supremacy

John Tavares and Sidney Crosby battle in the first round of last year's playoffs. (AP/Kathy Kmonicek)

To be the best you have to beat the best.

So as John Tavares transitions into the next phase of his NHL career — the Hart Trophy finalist was named captain of the New York Islanders on Monday — it should come as no surprise to find out that the player he wants to measure himself against is Sidney Crosby.

Those two went head-to-head during the first round of last year’s playoffs and spent some time working out together over the summer.

Tavares travelled to Halifax and Vail, Colo., to participate in sessions led by Andy O’Brien, Crosby’s longtime personal trainer, and gained a little more insight into what makes the world’s top hockey player tick. That was almost as valuable as the physical benefits those workouts yielded.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for him in the way he handles himself, the way he plays, how hard he works and how bad he wants it,” Tavares told about Crosby. “I’d like to think that I’m right there and want it just as bad.”

As recently as a year or two ago, it would be surprising to hear Tavares say such a thing publicly.

But at age 22 he seems to have come into his own — something that was noted by Hockey Canada at last month’s Olympic orientation camp in Calgary and should be on display more now that he’s officially taken over leadership of the Islanders.

If a player’s career is viewed as a series of building blocks, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009 has scaled new heights.

Forty-seven points in 48 games was a solid output, but it was his role in pushing the Islanders to a post-season berth that really helped him secure third in voting for the league’s MVP award. The six-game loss to Pittsburgh in the first round has only left him hungrier to do it all again.

“You really don’t know what the playoffs are like until you get there,” said Tavares. “You can ask guys about it, you can talk about it and hear a lot of things about it, but there’s nothing really quite like it. …

“It was some of the most fun I ever had playing hockey.”

There will be more expectations placed on Tavares in his fifth NHL season than ever before and he seems prepared to welcome that challenge. While he may never become as dominant as Crosby, it’s clear that his goal is to do everything he can to achieve that status.

The most obvious similarity between the two men is a relentless drive to get better.

A conversation with a member of the Islanders about the newly minted captain sounds eerily similar to many that we’ve had in Pittsburgh over the years.

“He’s someone who was obviously given some extraordinary talents and he does not let them go to waste,” linemate Matt Moulson said of Tavares. “He’s probably the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched him for a long time — I think since he was 13 or 14 — at how hard he’s worked to get where he is.

“It wasn’t something he just took for granted.”

Barring something unforeseen, Tavares and Crosby will be back together again in February when Team Canada travels to Sochi, Russia and attempts to defend its gold medal at the Olympics.

The prospect of playing in that tournament is another major source of motivation. Tavares has worn the Maple Leaf with pride at two world junior championships and three IIHF World Hockey Championships, but has only so far dreamed about the Olympics.

He fondly remembers watching Crosby’s golden goal at the Vancouver Games on television along with the rest of the nation.

“I’ve always looked at it that the highest honour in hockey is winning the Stanley Cup and I guess the highest honour as an athlete is to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games,” said Tavares. “It will be a unique experience (in Sochi). It will be not like Vancouver obviously, but it will be a different sort of pressure.

“I think there still will be a lot of it.”

In the meantime, his focus will be trained on having a strong start to the year for the Islanders.

Tavares has been the face of the franchise since getting drafted and carried himself like a captain even when Mark Streit wore the “C,” but now there is no absolutely no doubt about who is leading the way on Long Island.

“He’s only going to get better,” said Moulson. “He’s still young, still learning and he’s going to be a dominant player in the league for a lot of years.”

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