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How good is John Tavares?

[Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2008 edition of 'The Committed Indian', the unofficial Chicago Black Hawks program...]

Can you imagine baseball fans across the country getting excited about a 16-year-old shortstop? Football fans getting worked up because a freshman running back is dominating the varsity somewhere in Texas? Well, it happens all the time in hockey. Ever since a 16-year-old Wayne Gretzky stepped on the ice in 1977 and dominated players three years his senior in the Ontario Hockey Association junior league, there's been tremendous buzz around kids who would be a decade away from their primes in many other sports. Hockey fans are always looking for the second-coming of Gretzky: Mario Lemieux in 1981, Eric Lindros in 1989, Sidney Crosby in 2003, and now John Tavares.

There was so much excitement around Tavares that Canada's junior hockey leagues changed their rules to allow him to be drafted at age 14 and play just three days after his 15th birthday. Fans of bad NHL teams were already hoping they'd be bad enough to get the first draft pick in 2009 so they could pick him. He did not disappoint, scoring 45 goals in 65 games. The list of players who've put up numbers like this at such a young age over the last 25 years is a short one:

Name Season Age League PPG Adj
John Tavares 2005-06 15.28 OHL 1.18 1.01
Jason Spezza 1998-99 15.55 OHL 1.06 0.83
Rob Brown 1983-84 15.73 WHL 1.16 0.69

The table lists each player's age as of January 1st of that season. The PPG column lists each player's points-per-game, while Adj shows that figure adjusted to a 6 goal-per-game offensive environment. This adjustment is particularly important - without it, we would overstate the significance of performances like Brown's, in a league where teams combined for more than 10 goals-per-game. At any rate, Tavares was younger and better than other prodigies, who themselves were pretty good: Spezza has three 30-goal seasons in the NHL before age 24, while Brown scored 49 at age 20.

Tavares didn't disappoint in his second season, scoring 72 goals in 67 games. His company at that level:

Name Season Age League PPG Adj
Sidney Crosby 2003-04 16.40 QMJHL 2.29 2.04
John Tavares 2006-07 16.28 OHL 2.00 1.61
Vincent Lecavalier 1996-97 16.70 QMJHL 1.59 1.27
Derek Roy 1999-00 16.66 OHL 1.32 1.13
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 2000-01 16.68 QMJHL 1.42 1.10
Brian Bellows 1980-01 16.33 OHL 1.76 1.09
Jimmy Carson 1984-85 16.45 QMJHL 1.71 1.05
Martin Lapointe 1989-90 16.30 QMJHL 1.48 1.05
Rob Schremp 2002-03 16.50 OHL 1.14 1.03
Rick Nash 2000-01 16.54 OHL 1.14 1.02
Jason Spezza 1999-00 16.55 OHL 1.17 1.01
Mike Ricci 1987-88 16.18 OHL 1.49 1.00
Pierre Turgeon 1985-86 16.34 QMJHL 1.65 0.99

Most of these players did not approach Tavares' age-16 performance, but even at these lower levels, they averaged nearly a point-per-game in the NHL at age 18, and 10 out of 12 of them arguably ended up being NHL stars - while Martin Lapointe played nearly 1000 NHL games (and the jury is still out on Rob Schremp).

So what happened the next season? Tavares kept his output steady, which still placed him at the top of his age group:

Name Season Age League PPG Adj
Sidney Crosby 2004-05 17.40 QMJHL 2.71 2.55
Jason Spezza 2000-01 17.55 OHL 2.10 1.89
Pierre-Marc Bouchard 2001-02 17.68 QMJHL 2.03 1.74
John Tavares 2007-08 17.28 OHL 2.00 1.74
Pavel Brendl 1998-99 17.77 WHL 1.97 1.68
Dale Hawerchuk 1980-81 17.74 QMJHL 2.54 1.62
Ramzi Abid 1997-98 17.77 QMJHL 1.99 1.60
Vincent Lecavalier 1997-98 17.70 QMJHL 1.98 1.60
Marc Savard 1994-95 17.46 OHL 2.11 1.56
Kyle Wellwood 2000-01 17.63 OHL 1.74 1.56
Mario Lemieux 1982-83 17.24 QMJHL 2.79 1.55
Joe Thornton 1996-97 17.50 OHL 2.07 1.55
Pierre Turgeon 1986-87 17.34 QMJHL 2.66 1.55
Rob Brown 1985-86 17.73 WHL 2.51 1.51

A few more good names pop up on the list, along with some huge disappointments. My initial inclination was that because Tavares wasn't scoring at a higher rate, he wasn't getting any better. And players who don't get better as teenagers tend to be very disappointing professionals. But he's still at the top of every list at his age, and he doesn't play on a top offensive team like Crosby did. I think he's obviously not as good as Sidney Crosby, but likely better than Jason Spezza. That's not a terrible verdict - Spezza was 6th in NHL scoring last season; Crosby, whose abilities are well-known, was 1st in scoring two years ago.

The bottom line: Tavares probably won't be the best player in the game, but it's pretty likely that he'll be in the top ten even if he doesn't step up another notch in his final junior season.