Things coming together for Islanders

John Tavares showed loyalty to the Islanders and is growing into a respected leader. Mike Stobe/NHLI/Getty Images

Over the past few seasons, many in the hockey world wondered just why John Tavares had signed a six-year deal a few seasons back with a team that seemingly kept shooting itself in the foot.

Now you know why: The New York Islanders are rocking the Nassau Coliseum in their final season before moving to Brooklyn next season, contending for first place in the NHL standings and showing signs through their youthful core that they intend to do so for many more years at their new address.

There's so much more work ahead before they fully convince everyone, but Tavares appears to have been rewarded for his decision to remain loyal to the team that took him first overall in the 2009 NHL draft.

"They drafted me, invested a lot in me as far as being part of turning things around," Tavares told ESPN.com on Sunday in a phone interview. "And I thought it would be something pretty special to be part of bringing the Islanders back to competing for the playoffs and hopefully competing for Stanley Cups every year. We know the history of the team; for many years there have been tough times.

"Really, I just want to be part of something special. There's still a long way to go, but certainly being here every day, I knew what the organization wanted to accomplish and how much they care. I really enjoy playing here."

These are heady days in the place some people once mockingly called Fantasy Island. All those high draft picks are producing results on the ice this season to the tune of a 17-7-0 record. What a send-off. Those battered Islanders fans, who have witnessed just two playoff berths since the 2004-05 lockout, are rocking the Coliseum these days, their patience and loyalty finally rewarded.

"We have a tremendous fan base," Tavares said. "From the outside I know it doesn't always seem that way, but this season being at the Coliseum and seeing the crowds we've had, the support we've had has been absolutely tremendous. It's a playoff atmosphere really every night. We have a great group. All those tough years we've had, we're starting to see some dividends with the young players, some still in junior and the minors.

"With the depth we have, we have time to develop these guys, and they'll have an impact in the future. It really sets us up for the long haul. That's why I know there's some good things coming."

Youngsters such as Brock Nelson (20 points) and Ryan Strome (17 points) have blossomed this season, but the really telling numbers are in the ice time. Every regular is in double digits for average ice time per game. This is a team with roles for everyone.

"They've got a lot of balance in their lines," said a rival Eastern Conference team executive. "They're not just a one-line team. Obviously, Tavares is the key, but now he's got a lot of balance around him right through four lines. This is the first time [GM] Garth [Snow] has had the opportunity to spend more money and he used it well. He added [Nikolay] Kulemin and [Mikhail] Grabovski, picked up the two defensemen, he fixed his goaltending.

"They play with a lot of speed and create a lot of opportunities. They're a legitimate, contending team."

A legitimate, contending team? How many years have Islanders fans yearned to hear those words associated with their team?

"We've been playing well, it's just nice playing good hockey, getting good results, feeding off it and just getting off the right foot," Tavares said. "It's a long year, but it's important you start off well. It's tough to come from behind later on in the season and trying to make up ground. Since I've been here, we've had some tough starts to the season, so it's definitely nice, and we just want to keep it going."

Snow set the tone this past spring when he surprised many by deciding to keep his first-round pick in 2014 rather than give it to the Buffalo Sabres as part of the ill-fated Thomas Vanek trade. Instead, he flipped the Islanders' 2015 first-rounder to Buffalo.

That's surprising, of course, because the 2015 draft is generational in nature, led by the likes of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel at the top. How could the Islanders risk giving away a 2015 pick, especially if another year out of the playoffs for New York would give the Sabres a lottery pick?

Snow's decision sent a message: The Isles would be much better this season. The players certainly took notice.

"I think obviously our expectations were to finish a lot higher than where we finished last season coming off of making the playoffs the year before," Tavares said. "It was just a real disappointing year last year. We took a couple of steps back in a way. At the end of the season there were a lot of questions being asked and a lot of people challenging one another, and looking yourself in the mirror really and figuring out what you have to do individually to be better and how to approach things in the summertime.

"As players, we knew the goal was to get back into the playoffs, and last year was really unacceptable for us. We had a good feeling that Garth would improve the team. It's the last year at the Coliseum as well. We know we want to finish it off on the right foot and have a good season."

Snow shored up the goaltending by trading for (and signing) Jaroslav Halak, who has been very solid. He signed unrestricted free-agent forwards Kulemin and Grabovsky. He upgraded the blue line by trading for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy just before the season, taking advantage of two cap-challenged teams.

Plus, even before those additions, the sense within the room was that the Islanders were better than what they showed last season. This is the team that pushed Pittsburgh hard in a playoff series just two years ago, after all.

"We just expected so much more out of ourselves coming into this year," Tavares said. "I think you see not only the additions that Garth made but also the steps that young players have been taking, you know, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, and some of the young guys also on the back end have really stepped up.

"Some of those years where we've had those high picks, those guys are starting to come into their own and are making big contributions. That pushes a guy like me to keep playing well and keep improving my game. I just think we're a hard team to play against. We have real good depth in the organization."

At 24, Tavares is also coming into his own -- not just becoming a superstar center many believe is among the top four or five players in the world but also evolving as a leader as he tries to carry his team into a new realm. That's where his experience at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is paying off.

The Islanders organization didn't hide its anger this past February when Tavares suffered a season-ending knee injury while playing for Team Canada. Yet it might have been very much worth it when you consider what Tavares gleaned from being around leaders such as Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Shea Weber.

"One hundred percent," Tavares said. "You definitely learn a lot, some things you don't maybe really realize until you get back and you kind of go through some things. Just what I noticed over there in Sochi, the expectations were obviously so high, not only is it about winning but it's how you win when you're playing for the [Canadian] Olympic team, it's so scrutinized.

"I remember people talking about us not scoring many goals, the games were really close. But in that locker room, you would never have sensed any kind of panic, any kind of change in our approach and our game. We understood how good we were and how tough we were making it on teams defensively and how hard we were making it on them in terms of creating opportunities. You could see the confidence, the poise and the composure no matter what. That's something I really noticed over there, just how composed everyone stayed and confident they were, a lot of those guys have gone through a lot of playoff runs and Stanley Cups, that was really beneficial to me."

In turn, it's benefited the Islanders, a club playing with more confidence this season.

"We understand the talent we have," Tavares said. "Whether we're playing well or not, we understand the game we need to play. Everyone is poised and composed and sticking with it."

Pinch yourself, Islanders fans, this is all really happening.