By David Pollak
Trailing by one goal, the San Jose Sharks were less than four minutes from elimination when the puck arrived on Joe Pavelski’s stick just outside the Edmonton Oilers crease. A year ago, when he led the Sharks all the way to Stanley Cup final, his shot would have gone in. Pavelski’s 14 goals, after all, were tops in the 2016 playoffs.
This year, however, his backhand shot pinged off the crossbar, then nicked the far post before being cleared. The Sharks eventually lost 3-1, dropping their first-round series in six games.
It was a painful moment for Pavelski, who has quietly become one of the NHL’s most consistent goal scorers. He lacks the pedigree of the only two players who have scored more than his 192 goals over the past six seasons – first-overall picks Alex Ovechkin (257) and Steven Stamkos (202). But ask around and people in the know will say Pavelski, the 205th player drafted in the 2003, is a true student of the game, blessed with hockey smarts. Which is why less than 48 hours after his double-metal miss, he had already reviewed the video, trying to turn heartbreak into a learning experience. “You watch it a little bit because you want to see what it really was like,” Pavelski said. “You try to learn from your mistakes. And whether it was a mistake or not, there are certain areas where you’re still always trying to get a little better.”
Although it has taken awhile for him to gain visibility, Pavelski has slowly earned league-wide recognition. Yet he still maintains a low profile, with a reserved public persona and family-oriented lifestyle. He married his high school sweetheart, Sarah, and along with their six-year-old son, Nathan, they spend summers boating and fishing at the lakefront home they own in Madison, Wis.
Madison is a special place for Pavelski, who led Wisconsin to the 2006 NCAA title as its leading scorer. Former Badger teammates, including Adam Burish and Tom Gilbert, spend the summer there as well. “We’ve got a great setup there, using those facilities and being around friends,” Pavelski said. “It’s a perfect area to decompress from the season and look forward to the next one.”
Friends, including those without hockey connections, are important to him in San Jose as well. The Pavelskis have lived in the same Willow Glen neighborhood for more than a decade. For a while, they would bring Lucy, their chocolate Labrador retriever, to the small park where an informal dog group had formed so people and their pets could socialize. When Pavelski brought home a silver medal in 2010 from the Vancouver Olympics, the group threw a party in his honor. Now that Lucy is older, the trips to the park are less frequent. Instead, Pavelski and his wife are more likely to be watching Nathan play football, T-ball or hockey, where he skates in the same mini-mites league as Brent Burns’ son, Jagger.
As well as being one of the Sharks’ top offensive weapons, Pavelski is also the team’s top golfer, a scratch player. His former coach, Todd McLellan, sees similarities in the way Pavelski prepares for both sports – how he’s able to analyze the circumstances without overthinking. “He’s such a cerebral player and person,” said McLellan, who coached Pavelski from 2008 to 2015. “He thinks things through, he understands situations and then he’s able to turn it into just playing.”
McLellan named Pavelski one of four rotating alternate captains during the 2014-15 season after the ‘C’ was taken away from Joe Thornton. But it was current coach Pete DeBoer who gave the captaincy to Pavelski full time ahead of 2015-16. That created the unique situation of a team having two of its former captains, Thornton and Patrick Marleau, in the same lineup – and occasionally on the same line – as its current captain. “It could be really awkward, but it wasn’t because of the character of the people we’re dealing with,” DeBoer said. “Joe and Patrick are so comfortable in their own skin and their place in the game and in the leadership hierarchy that it wasn’t an issue.”
Pavelski, too, gets credit for the smooth transition from DeBoer, who describes his captain as high energy, inclusive, approachable and honest. “He wears that on his sleeve,” DeBoer said, “and he backs it up with what he does on the ice.”
While Pavelski rarely shows much emotion publicly, fans got a glimpse of his fiery side in February 2015. The Sharks were featured in the Road to the NHL Stadium Series that month, and cameras recorded a 67-second tirade between periods in a game against Arizona that featured 20 f-bombs, followed by a quiet exchange with Burns that included one more. The Sharks were struggling to get into playoff position and trailed the Coyotes 2-0 at the time. San Jose went on to win 4-2, with Pavelski’s hat trick leading the way.
Pavelski has worked hard to become one the NHL’s best goal scorers, specifically when it comes to deflecting shots. At practices, he positions himself in the slot – high and low – with his back to the net, tipping one puck after another fired his way from the blueline. Teammates have adapted their games accordingly. “As a D-man, it’s huge,” said Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “You just throw it to an area and he’ll find it. You just put it to where his stick is, and he’ll find a way to tip it in.”
It’s now been more than a decade since Pavelski reached the NHL in November 2006. As a young player, he was motivated to improve his game by the talent around him, particularly Thornton and Marleau. Now 33 and entering his 12th NHL season, the Sharks captain finds himself in the mentor role. “You can go up and pick his brain whenever you want – he’s really open to that,” said 23-year-old Sharks center Chris Tierney. “But I think the best way for me to learn is watching him and seeing how he does it.”
There are few better examples.