Islanders need John Tavares for some defense, too

The Islanders face off against the Los Angeles Kings at Nassau Coliseum on March 26.
The Islanders face off against the Los Angeles Kings at Nassau Coliseum on March 26.

I love John Tavares. I’m a longtime Islander fan, so how I can I help but love John Tavares? But if he is to join the echelon of the truly great hockey players, Tavares has to play better defensively.

Thursday night’s 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, played before a sellout crowd that included me and my wife, was the latest example. Tavares was on the ice for all three goals against — including a short-handed score that gave the Kings a 2-1 lead early in the third period. Tavares allowed Tyler Toffoli to slip past him at center ice, then didn’t skate fast enough to catch up to Toffoli at the goal post. The result: Toffoli, the NHL leader in short-handed goals, was unchecked at the post as he knocked in the rebound of a 2-on-1 that drew a collective groan at Nassau Coliseum.

It was only the third short-hander the Isles have allowed all season, tied for second-fewest in the league. Heck of a time to give it up — in the third period of a tie game late in the season against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

Tavares is better than that, and he knows it. The face of the Islanders’ franchise admitted as much after the game.

“I think a lot of it starts with me,” he said. “Being on (the ice) for three goals against, and not being hard enough on the puck and doing the little things at important times really cost us, and I have to do better. Guys look to me, and it starts there.”

I admire Tavares for being a standup guy. He has a chance to become the first Islander to lead the league in scoring since Bryan Trottier in the 1978-79 season. But Tavares’ minus-3 for the night put his plus/minus rating for the season at minus-1, despite his nearly point-a-game pace (34 goals and 40 assists in 75 games).

Tavares is a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck. But for the Islanders to go far in the playoffs, their captain can’t be a defensive liability when he doesn’t have the puck.