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John Tavares the new one to watch in Canadian major junior hockey

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  • John Tavares the new one to watch in Canadian major junior hockey

    John Tavares the new one to watch in Canadian major junior hockey

    DONNA SPENCER Tue Sep 20, 5:24 PM ET

    (CP) - Exit Sidney Crosby. Enter John Tavares.

    With the 18-year-old Crosby now firmly in the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup, the arrival of Tavares is the buzz in the Canadian Hockey League. He is the first player granted "exceptional status" by the Ontario Hockey League, allowing him to play in the league as an underage player

    Tavares, six feet and 183 pounds, turned 15 Tuesday and makes his OHL debut with the Oshawa Generals on Friday in Kingston.

    "Any player in the NHL would be a great comparison, but when you name a guy like Sidney Crosby . . . but I don't know if I'll be able to do things he's done in the league because we're different types of players," Tavares said Tuesday from Oshawa.

    "He is definitely a true phenom. People like to call me a phenom even though I haven't done anything. I haven't even played in a regular-season game yet. I just hope to be a productive player in the league.

    "I don't look to be the next one or the next phenom coming in or try to fill his shoes. I just want to try and help the Oshawa Generals win a championship."

    The 2005-06 season opens Wednesday with the Saginaw Spirit hosting the Plymouth Whalers.

    Neither the OHL nor the Generals keep official pre-season statistics, but Generals general manager Brad Selwood said Tavares has been one of the team's leading goal-scorers in the exhibition season.

    "He scored two goals in Peterborough the other day that were just unbelievable," Selwood said. "He's getting better every day and every game, he's getting better every minute."

    Tavares' strengths are his vision and playmaking ability, which echo Crosby, but until Tavares gets into the swing of major junior hockey, that's where the comparisons have to end.

    Tavares, whose uncle is National Lacrosse League star John Tavares, is already taller than Crosby and thus will have room on his frame to be heavier than Crosby. Tavares said Crosby is the better skater now.

    Crosby played prep-school hockey in Minnesota as a 15-year-old, recording some heady numbers.

    Tavares will be playing with and against player up to five years older than him in the OHL. Many of the league's veterans weren't around for the pre-season while they attended NHL training camps.

    But Tavares, from Oakville, Ont., excelled playing against older players last season. He had 91 goals and 76 assists in 72 games playing with the Toronto Marlboros minor midget team and also collected 13 goals and 15 assists in 20 games with Milton in the Ontario Jr. A league, which includes 20-year-old players.

    "You forget how old he is when you watch him play," said NHL Central Scouting consultant Frank Bonello. "He's certainly an exceptional talent, that's for sure."

    International Scouting Services said Tavares "is the most impressive prospect that we have seen since Sidney Crosby."

    The Generals can't help but be better after a league-worst 15-48-3-2 record last season.

    But the Peterborough Petes are touted as the early front-runners for an OHL championship with depth up front and experience on the blue-line.

    The OHL has adopted most, but not all, of the NHL's rule changes this season. The size of goalie equipment will not be reduced until next season because suppliers couldn't fulfil the sudden demand from both the pro and the junior leagues.

    The blue-lines and goal-lines haven't moved to increase the size of the zones because arenas didn't have time to do so before the season began.

    But zero tolerance on obstruction, shootouts to resolve ties, two-line passes (no red line) limiting the zone in which goaltenders can handle the puck and minor penalties for shooting the puck over the glass in the defensive zone have been incorporated.

    The OHL will also implement a two-referee system this season.

    Just a few days prior the OHL draft in May, the league established guidelines under which underage players could be drafted if a panel determined that player was "exceptional."

    Tavares was the first to enter the league under those circumstances and understands the kind of attention that comes along with it. Jason Spezza was the last 15-year-old in the OHL in 1998-99 when he played for the Brampton Battalion.

    "There's obviously going to be attention since I'm the youngest guy in the league and the first guy allowed in under the exceptional player rule," Tavares said. "I don't go into games thinking about the pressure, that everyone is watching."

    Tavares will have a longer term in major junior than Crosby, who spent two seasons with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Rimouski Oceanic before graduating.

    With his late birthday, Tavares isn't eligible for the NHL draft until 2009, which would give him four seasons in the OHL.

    "We're trying to bid for the Memorial Cup when it comes back to the OHL and we're getting a new arena," Tavares said. "It will be a long time, but I think it will be a great experience too."

    Notes - The Ottawa 67's will host the 2006 Home Hardware Top Prospects Game on Jan. 18 . . . The OHL hosts the Russian team in the 2005 ADT Canada/Russia Challenge on Nov. 24 in Kitchener and Nov. 28 in Peterborough.