As the top overall draft pick in 2005, Sidney Crosby entered the NHL as a highly touted member of a franchise struggling on and off the ice. John Tavares will begin his professional career in a very similar fashion.
In what the New York Islanders hope will be the start of a new era for the floundering franchise, Tavares makes his highly anticipated NHL debut Saturday night against Crosby and the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum.
When the Penguins selected Crosby with the first pick in 2005 following the lockout, the franchise was coming off a league-worst 23-47-12 record in 2003-04 and had the NHL's lowest average attendance that season.
Adding Crosby to a core that already included high draft picks Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury put the Penguins on the road to respectability. Although the team struggled in Crosby's rookie season, Pittsburgh improved by 47 points the following year and quickly developed into a perennial contender.
Crosby led the Penguins to the franchise's third Stanley Cup in June, and next season the team will move out of Mellon Arena - the league's oldest facility - and into the new Consol Energy Center.
The Islanders (26-47-9) would certainly settle for another poor season if that type of success could be guaranteed. New York finished with a league-low 61 points in 2008-09, failed to win a playoff series for the 15th consecutive season and extended their Stanley Cup drought to 26 years.
Selecting Tavares with the top overall pick in the 2009 draft was the Islanders' consolation prize for their dismal season, and the 19-year-old's gaudy numbers in juniors provides hope for a team that had a woeful offense last season with 201 goals scored.
"We don't want him to feel that it all falls on his shoulders. It would be unfair to do that," second-year coach Scott Gordon said of Tavares. "He is going to have his ups and downs. The biggest thing is progress from Game 1 to Game 40, and then where are we at Game 40. Then, hopefully, big strides can be made in the second half."
The Islanders' future on Long Island remains in doubt as owner Charles Wang is in a desperate struggle with the Town of Hempstead to get approval to build the Lighthouse Project - which would include a new arena. Kansas City has been mentioned a potential destination and the Islanders played a preseason game at the Sprint Center last month.
"It's been a couple of tough years," said goaltender Martin Biron. "If you're an Islanders fan, you want to see the Lighthouse Project come to life. You want to see this team get on the ice and win some games. We're hoping that more of these things are going to happen."
With franchise goaltender Rick DiPietro still recovering from a lingering knee injury, veterans Dwayne Roloson and Biron were signed to pick up the slack. Roloson, who turns 40 on Oct. 12, went 28-24-9 with a 2.77 goals-against average last season for Edmonton and is likely to start Saturday.
Tavares should help an offense that got much of its production from defenseman Mark Streit, who led the club in scoring with 56 points - including a team-high 10 power-play goals.
This will be the Penguins' second game in two nights after opening the season Friday by raising their Stanley Cup banner before beating the New York Rangers 3-2.
"I thought we did a good job of focusing," Crosby said. "You're sitting around a little bit, but I thought it worked to our advantage. We were skating pretty well and got off to a great start."
Malkin and Crosby scored and Fleury made 25 saves for Pittsburgh, which went 5-0-1 against the Islanders last season and is 10-2-1 in the past 13 meetings.
Crosby has 12 goals and 32 assists in 25 games against New York. Malkin, the NHL leader last season with 113 points, has nine goals and 18 assists in 22 contests against the Islanders.
Fleury is 3-0-1 with a 1.23 GAA and a shutout in his last four overall starts against the Islanders, but 1-3-1 all-time at Nassau Coliseum.