We begin our three-part look at Joe Pavelski, covering the legacy he built as a member of the San Jose Sharks and his future prospects with his new team, the Dallas Stars. In our opening article, we’ll tell the tale of his tenure with the Sharks. How he arrived, how he grew and what he’s meant to the franchise. Our second article will discuss the numbers and compare him with another Sharks legend. In the final article, we’ll look at what he can bring to his new team.
Joe Pavelski San Jose Sharks Legacy
Joe Pavelski is one of the most important players in Sharks history. In the offseason, he left the team in free agency, inking a 3-year deal with the Stars. At one level, this was a shock to the system. At another level, it seemed inevitable once the Sharks signed elite defenseman Erik Karlsson to an $11.5 million per year deal. The Sharks simply did not have sufficient cap space to retain Pavelski.
The lore of Pavelski’s entry into the Sharks system has been oft-told. He arrived into the Sharks system from the 2003 draft. Taken in the seventh round, the 205th player overall, the odds were against him. Unlike high draft selections who make a beeline for the NHL, Pavelski continued his collegiate career. Nearly three years after his draft selection, he’d win an NCAA championship in 2006 with the University of Wisconsin Badgers.
Though Pavelski has not won an NHL championship, Sharks broadcaster Jamie Baker defined what made Pavelski the player he is. Baker cited “championship habits.”
For those who dropped into Sharks practices, the habits were on display. His signature drill was his puck tipping drill. He’d pull one of the team’s defenseman aside and have him fire pucks which Pavelski would tip into the boards. The practice enabled Pavelski to become the NHL’s best at scoring goals by redirecting pucks. Some were clutch, such as the opening goal in Game 7 against the Colorado Avalanche in this season’s playoffs, others were spectacular like his second score against the Detroit Red Wings.
His entry into the NHL came at age 22 in the 2006-07 season. While expectations might have been low for the man wearing jersey 53, the results were eye-opening. As a rookie, he netted 14 goals and 28 points in 46 games while averaging 15 minutes of ice time. He was savvy beyond his years. While his regular-season ice time diminished the following season, his playoff ice time jumped to over 22 minutes per game.
His first major highlight as a member of the Sharks came in Game 5 of the second round of the 2008 playoffs when he scored the overtime winner against the Stars. This kept the Sharks alive in the tightly contested series (in the series, there were 7 overtime periods). The victory, in front of a raucous crowd at the Shark Tank, raised Pavelski’s profile and served notice that he was headed for bigger things.
Things changed for Pavelski in his early years with the Sharks. He dropped the number 53 and migrated to his familiar 8. On a team with ‘Jumbo’ Joe Thornton, Pavelski was dubbed ‘Little Joe’. But after coming up big time after time, broadcaster Randy Hahn decided the moniker needed changing and dubbed him ‘The Big Pavelski’. The new name stuck.
The Big Pavelski
The opening round of the 2010 playoffs is an example of Pavelski’s value to the team in critical situations. The Sharks lost Game 1 against the Colorado Avalanche. In Game 2, the teams alternated goals, with the Avs scoring to take the lead and the Sharks scoring to tie the game. This happened five times. When the Avs went ahead 5-4, the Sharks were on the ropes — already down in the series and now down late in the game — the situation was dire. With 32 seconds left, Pavelski scored to tie the game. The Sharks won in overtime to even the series, though the team hadn’t skated with a lead in either game.
The Avs won Game 3, but in Game 4, Pavelski tallied the overtime winner once again, to even the series. From there, the Sharks dominated the final two games to advance. The series against the Avs illustrates an aspect of Pavelski’s time in San Jose. When the Sharks needed a critical play, Pavelski was most often the player making it. His clutch plays turned the series from probable defeat into victory. It was hardly the only time the turning point of a game or series centered around Pavelski.
The Big Pavelski Close Calls
Pavelski was also at the center of some of the most spectacular plays which went against the Sharks. Two come to mind. The first game against the Los Angeles Kings late in Game 7 of the 2013 playoffs. With the Sharks trailing by a goal, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made a remarkable sprawling save on a Pavelski shot headed towards what looked like an open net. More recently, in 2018, the Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights went into overtime of Game 3 of their playoff series. The series turned in the overtime when Marc-Andre Fleury made an amazing save on a point-blank shot from Logan Couture. It was a brilliant pass from Pavelski which set up Couture. Alas, Fleury’s amazing save kept the Knights alive and they would go on to win the game later in the overtime period.
For most of Pavelski’s early career in San Jose, he played center. He couldn’t run the top line, that job belonged to Joe Thornton. But Pavelski had no shortage of talented linemates on the second line and he produced consistently. Ironically enough, it was a demotion of sorts which showed just how good he was. In February 2011, Pavelski was asked to run the Sharks third line alongside Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Wellwood, two very modest NHL players. Much to the delight of Sharks fans, the line took off. Sharks’ depth often felt like an afterthought, but not this time. Pavelski’s third line tore up the league. From February 1 through the rest of the season, Pavelski was stunning plus-24 with 35 points in 32 games. Pavelski’s line was the ‘difference maker’.
Among Sharks players, Pavelski is often referred to as ‘Pokey’, a reference to his skating talent. Yet he often accelerates play because he processes the game rapidly. His prime scoring area is the net-front area and he spends so much time there he might be the most cross-checked player in the league. He isn’t big, but he is mentally and physically tough. He finds ways to create space, has an excellent balance and his hand-eye coordination is superb.
Two plays against the Nashville Predators highlight his toughness.
On the first play, he takes a beating from Preds’ defenders. Pavelski heads to the net-front where he gets cross-checked hard and goes down to the ice. A bit slow to get up, he gets cross-checked down to the ice a second time. And he gets up again, then bangs home a rebound for a score.
On a disallowed overtime goal against the Predators in the playoffs, Pavelski skates hard down the ice. He gets pushed from behind by Paul Gaustad, tripped by Shea Weber and slams into goalie Pekka Rinne. Pavelski gives up six inches and about 35 pounds to each of those players. And yet, there he was battling for every inch of ice. Even down on the ice, he keeps battling, eventually tapping the puck into the net. A much smaller player goes into the land of giants and finds a way to get the puck past the goalie. While the goal was overturned, the effort was pure Joe Pavelski.
Pavelski’s Comfort Zone
In recent seasons, Pavelski has been a winger. At times, there were situations which required Pavelski to return to the center position, albeit usually for a limited run. Once, when asked about when was the last time he’d played center, Pavelski responded: “the last time I took a face-off.” This is the essence of Pavelski. Comfortable in whatever he was asked to do, but even more critically, comfortable in his own skin.
Pavelski became the team’s captain in 2015. It is one thing to be captain, another to be the captain on a team where two future Hall-of-Famers had both lost the captaincy (Thornton and Patrick Marleau) and both were still on the roster. Pavelski handled the transition flawlessly. Part of the captain’s role is to face the media on a nightly basis. He found ways to be interesting in interviews and stay on subject. When the media brought up controversial subjects, he had the diplomatic skill to avoid escalating the issue.
It is fair to say Pavelski had many roles in his tour with the Sharks. Early in his career, he was the unheralded surprise. Then a useful player. He evolved to become a high-end player. From there, he developed into the most clutch player in team history and ultimately became the team’s captain.
He was the little guy who played tough. The smart guy who skated slow but managed to play fast. Pavelski didn’t play a lot on the penalty kill, but when the team needed a critical face-off, he’d be out there. He could take modest players and make them better, or play with elite players and dominate. There were times he was a set-up man, others where he was the prime goal scorer. First line, second line or third line, he consistently succeeded.
In recent years, he’s been a regular at the All-Star Game and he’s a two-time American Olympian (winning silver in 2010) and captain of the American team in the World Cup of Hockey, earning the nickname Captain America (with a bobblehead to honor this). All the way through, Pavelski has been popular with the fan base. And a role model for his teammates.
He’s been likened to a Swiss Army Knife, capable of doing so many different things well. The metaphor works.
The Sharks Without Pavelski
The Sharks will miss Pavelski for a host of reasons. Goal scoring is the most obvious. Less obvious, he’s a superb passer. A few seasons back, the Sharks had four good set-up forwards, players with exceptional passing skills; Chris Tierney, Joonas Donskoi, Thornton and Pavelski. Only Thornton remains and his role has diminished with age and injuries. It might seem odd given his goal-scoring prowess, but passing the puck might be the area Pavelski is missed the most.
The team will miss the minutes Pavelski played, typically leading the Sharks forwards in ice time. Some are concerned about the loss of Pavelski’s leadership, though I find the term a bit vague. The Sharks are at their best when they play a disciplined game, where players follow the system and limit the amount of free-lancing. Pavelski’s teammates knew where Pavelski was – his disciplined game allowed his teammates to play faster and create pressure on opponents. This sort of leadership – playing disciplined hockey – will be challenging to replace.
He’ll be missed in the face-off circle and at crunch time in big games. He even leaves a void dealing with the media where he was very adept, in good times and bad.
Whether one first came to know Pavelski as ‘Little Joe’ or ‘The Big Pavelski’ or ‘Pokey’ or ‘Captain’ or ‘Captain America’, Joe Pavelski stands tall in Sharks history. Which is what made the choice this offseason so very difficult.
The Sharks had the option to keep 29-year-old Erik Karlsson, a player capable of playing MVP level hockey, or a very good player in the 35-year-old Pavelski. The team couldn’t keep both. The team went with Karlsson. It is an understandable choice and probably the right one. But make no mistake, it hurts on several levels.
After 13 seasons in San Jose, Joe Pavelski is off to his new home in Dallas. When it was his turn to get paid, the Sharks were out of cap space and there’s a sense of bitterness which underlies the departure. Pavelski has always been one who can motivate himself. Now he has extra motivation. For the first time in his career, Pavelski’s motivation will help an NHL team other than the Sharks.
The 205th player selected in an NHL draft is rightly considered a longshot, but the history isn’t as bad as one might think. Going back to 1984, Paul Cavalinni had a respectable NHL career. With expansion, more players are required so it makes sense that more players from late draft spots find success. There are three players in the NHL now who were selected at 205th overall. Ondrej Kase is off to a solid start in his career with the Anaheim Ducks. Joe Pavelski is in the latter stages of his excellent career. The other member of the group is Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. He was taken in the same spot in the 2000 draft. Given the quality of the three, it is safe to say the 205th spot has overachieved.
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