Boy, is it a good time to be an Islanders fan. The team just won its first playoff series in 23 years and has grabbed an early lead on the Lightning in the Conference Semifinals. Meanwhile, the Rangers have already cleaned out their lockers, the Mets and Yankees are still a couple of months away from relevance, the Jets and Giants are further away still, and the Knicks and Nets have evaporated into thin air. Add it all up, and the New York sports spotlight, for probably the first time in 40 years, is fixed firmly on the Isles.
But man, it is an even better time to be John Tavares. The Islanders’ savior just staged a performance for the ages in his team’s first round series against the Panthers, culminating in a legendary give-me-the-puck-and-get-on-my-back effort in Game 6. He has quickly emerged as one of the early favorites for the Conn Smythe Trophy, and, speaking of favorites, he may well be the most adored athlete in New York City at the moment. The morning following the Isles’ series-clinching win, Tavares was asked about his rising popularity on WFAN’s “The Joe and Evan Show.” (Find the full interview here.)
Said Joe Benigno to Tavares: “We were talking about who’s the number one athlete in New York right now and you certainly gotta look [your way]…Now that you’ve got the playoff stage to yourself with the Rangers out of the picture, does this finally now put John Tavares on the radar of: ‘Hey, this guy is one of the top players in the NHL, and he might be the biggest star we have in New York?’”
Tavares deflected the question in typical Tavares fashion.
“I mean I’m just a hockey player, guys…I just try to give everything I’ve got every day and always try to find ways to get better. I obviously want to accomplish something special here…and there’s been some great [athletes] here in New York who I’ve had the pleasure to watch, but I’m just trying to be myself. I’ve always been known as a little bit reserved, a little shy, so for me those are things I don’t try to worry about a whole lot, I just enjoy going to the rink every day and playing the game and love being around my teammates.”
It was an honest answer from Tavares, if not a wholly revealing one, and it spoke to his understated personality. The Isles’ captain isn’t one to declare his own greatness, even if he has every right to do so. He is quiet, hard-working and almost painfully modest. He lets his play speak for itself, and leaves speculation to everyone else.
So, let’s speculate: Is Tavares the biggest sports star in New York right now? Yes. Absolutely. Welllll, maybe. It’s tough, you see. There are so many factors to consider. What do we mean by “biggest star” anyway? Most talented? Most successful? Most visible? All of that? Hmmm. If we’re going to judge this, there needs to be some sort of informing criterion.
So, let’s create a working definition of the term and see which New York athlete embodies it the most:
The biggest star (n): The athlete who dominates the current sports conversation due to his personal accomplishments and his team’s success, and who offers his city the best chance to win a championship moving forward.
Okay. That’s straightforward enough. And Tavares fulfills each of those conditions with room to spare. He is by far the best player on the Islanders roster and has been since his 2009-10 rookie season. Along with goaltender Thomas Greiss, he has propelled the Isles to the second round of the playoffs while the team’s bandwagon, most notably in the New York area, continues to grow. And at 25 years old and signed to a bargain contract, Tavares inspires nothing but confidence moving forward.
Is Tavares a star? Of course. But is he the biggest star in New York? Let’s run through his most immediate challengers and see how they stack up.
Henrik Lundqvist (34 years old) – Rangers
Rangers fans might bristle at this notion, but Tavares has suddenly become the face of hockey in New York. Lundqvist is still an elite goaltender, but he’s on the backside of his prime and the Rangers are trending in the wrong direction. In respect to bringing the Stanley Cup to this city, Tavares feels like a safer bet than Lundqvist at this point.
Odell Beckham Jr. (23) – Giants
No New York athlete, in this era or any other, has risen to fame as suddenly and swiftly as Beckham. But through all the jaw-dropping personal feats, Beckham’s Giants are 10-18 with him on the field. The praise heaped upon Beckham in the past two years has yet to extend to his team, and as long as that remains the case it will be hard to list him alongside a proven playoff performer like Tavares.
Eli Manning (35) – Giants
Among active New York athletes, Manning is certainly the most decorated. He lifted the Giants to two Super Bowl championships (2007, 2011), taking home Super Bowl MVP honors on both occasions. But it seems Manning has been criticized as often as he’s been commended, during his tenure in New York, for the erratic nature of his play. And most fans would likely point out that it was the Giants’ defense, not their quarterback, that led them to their two most recent titles.
Darrelle Revis (30) – Jets
It wasn’t long ago that Revis held the mantle of New York’s biggest sports star. During his first stint with the Jets (2007-2012), he was the most dynamic playmaker on a ferocious defense that lifted the team to consecutive appearances in the AFC championship. But Revis has declined in the years since, while the Jets continue to look like a team that’s good but not good enough. Moreover, if they make the leap to elite status in the near future, it’s hard to imagine Revis being the reason why.
Carmelo Anthony (31) – Knicks
I mean, no.
Kristaps Porzingis (20) – Knicks
This nomination is based purely on potential. In his first NBA season, Porzingis showed signs of being a future superstar, drawing praise from teammates and opponents alike. Indeed, the Knicks might be Carmelo’s team at the moment but they’re Kristaps’ team moving forward. Still, they have a long way to go in becoming a championship contender and Porzingis has yet to make a true dent in New York.
Alex Rodriguez (40) – Yankees
Kidding. I’m kidding. Simmer down.
Matt Harvey (27), Jacob deGrom (27), Noah Syndergaard (23) – Mets
This is an interesting one. Measured alone, any one of these three would likely outshine Tavares. But Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard have become a three-headed monster, and their collective dominance seems to obscure each man’s individual greatness. Think of an MVP race in which two teammates cancel each other out by splitting the voting pool, enabling a third candidate to swoop in and win the award. That’s the feeling here, when comparing “SyndeGromey” to Tavares. It’s extremely hard to separate the three, and an exercise in futility to distinguish a single star.
So there you have it. In terms of his personal resume, his team’s success, his relevance in the current sports conversation and his likelihood of winning a championship in New York (phew!), John Tavares, captain of the New York Islanders, is the biggest sports star in perhaps the biggest sports city. Imagine that.