100 games a season: Gare Joyce's puck blog

Just like being in the scouts' & press' lounge, without the bad coffee and day-old Timbits

Location: Toronto

I've written for ESPN The Magazine and espn.com the last five years. My work has made the "notable" list of the Best American Sports Writing seven times and won four Canadian National Magazine Awards. My most recent book is Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts. I've written three other sports books: When the Lights Went Out: How One Brawl Ended Hockey's Cold War and Changed the Game; Sidney Crosby: Taking the Game by Storm; and The Only Ticket Off the Island: Baseball in the Dominican Republic.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Prisoner of Oshawa: Tavares's four-year sentence to junior

No sooner than I post this media-ignores-junior-hockey post than I see the Toronto Star with a sports-front-page story on John Tavares, the Oshawa Generals phenom.


Interesting that the Star has JT up high on the day of the Leafs tripping in to Pittsburgh for a clash with Baby Jesus and the Fuzzy-Cheeked Acolytes. Praise be to The Star.

A couple of interesting points.

The Star's Dave Feschuk wrote: There are those who will tell you he's got the skating ability of Joe Schmoe, that he's average on his blades at best. ("If he's slow," scoffs [Oshawa coach Brad] Selwood, "I hate to see him when he's fast.")

The skating knock: It's a reasonable observation but with qualification. His skating is not a strength at this point--but at 16 he's not close to physical maturity. It will surely improve when he fills out and gets stronger. Right now, it's a little early for him to be hitting the weight room, working on plyometrics and doing stuff that will yield a more explosive first stride. A comparable case would be Jason Spezza, also an early entrant to junior, though more play-maker than finisher and much bigger than Tavares at 15. JS and his skating had knockers as his (long) junior career played out--Jacques Martin and the "men's league" come on down--but it's not an issue at the next level. No reason to think it will be with Tavares.

I spoke with one coach who worked with Tavares (not in the OHL). Said the coach: "Best natural, pure finisher I've seen." This coach, who has worked with a few guys who've gone to the NHL and who is used to working with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, was saying this about a guy who hadn't turned 16 yet.

I think that with Tavares and others in their brackets, you should look at "qualifiers" not "disqualifiers." Finishing is a skill that's hard to improve on, skating much less so. In fact, it's reasonable to presume that his skating will improve if nature just unfolds--that is, even if he has only an average work ethic (and by the testimony of those who know, he works pretty damn hard).

I saw Tavares and the Generals against Sarnia a few weeks back. Sarnia's rookie, Steven Stamkos, was the first pick in last spring's O entry draft (the draft Tavares would have been in had the league not offered him early entry). Sarnia smoked the Gens (probably the low point of their season). Stamkos had a great game with better support around him--you could see this bugged Tavares to no end. NHL scouts just light up when you mention Stamkos's name. They do for Tavares as well, don't get me wrong. Though Stamkos might be less of a pure scorer than Tavares (might, I repeat) he's a much more fluid skater. Stamkos breaks out of jail (i.e., is NHL draft eligible) a year ahead of Tavares, who has to wait until 2009, cruel and inhuman punishment.