You know it’s a rich class of UFA forwards when Joe Pavelski, a five-time 30-goal scorer, gets mentioned as ‘Plan B’ for many teams. Really, though, it’s just a product of his age. He’s about to turn 35, whereas the top remaining UFA forwards, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, are 27 and 28, respectively. That makes a long-term investment a riskier proposition for Pavelski. Also, as a 13-year veteran without a Stanley Cup ring, he’s less likely to sign anywhere that can’t offer championship hopes within a couple seasons.
Still, given his goal-scoring prowess, leadership and versatility at center and wing, Pavelski will attract enough teams to score a nice contract. It may require dangling an extra year to win him in the bidding. Which teams make the most sense for him?
Before listing my top five, note the exclusion of the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens. They don’t seem close enough to a championship to have an edge over the competition. That doesn’t mean these teams can’t contend to sign him. It just means, despite being linked to him in the news this week, they don’t crack my top five. Here are the frontrunners.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
I really mean it when I say a UFA’s original team should never be underestimated in the race for his services, and I’ll take it further in Pavelski’s case. The Sharks have as good a shot as anyone. He’s their captain, they’re squarely in their championship window, and he loves living in San Jose. Everything fits except for, ahem, the money. The Sharks have $14.82 million in cap space, and RFA forwards Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc will eat more than enough of that to prohibit Pavelski re-signing. That doesn’t even factor in UFA Joe Thornton, who has no intention of retiring. The only way Pavelski fits under the cap is if Wilson executes an incredible juggling act including some or all of the following: (a) a bridge deal for one or both of Meier and Labanc, (b) trading out another expensive veteran contract; (c) letting Thornton walk; and (d) convincing Pavelski to sign for a slight hometown discount of, say, $6 million a year. Don’t rule out Wilson moving mountains to make it happen, though.
The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported Monday that league sources suggest Pavelski might visit Dallas this week. The Stars check as many boxes as any possible suitor. Having lost in Game 7 of the of the second round this past post-season, they’re close enough to Cup contention that Pavelski could put them over the top. They have the cap space after shedding Jason Spezza’s contract this summer. They have a strong foundation on defense led by Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell. Goalie Ben Bishop just completed the best season of his career. And Pavelski would have plenty of support in the leadership department with veterans Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in tow. If San Jose can’t make it work, Dallas has plenty of appeal.
If I could play fantasy GM and place Pavelski on a new team for the most interesting fit, Colorado would get my vote. The Avs are a team on the rise, with some truly exciting young players, from Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen up front to Cale Makar on defense. Colorado went to Round 1 of the playoffs, then Round 2, in consecutive years, suggesting an upward trajectory, but this team badly needs secondary scoring and veteran leadership. Pavelski on a short-term contract would provide exactly that. The Avalanche have a ton of cap space, even after factoring in Rantanen’s upcoming lucrative RFA contract, and are sliding into MacKinnon’s peak years. Over the course of a three-year deal, Pavelski very well could get a chance at a Cup.
We’ve all but stitched Matt Duchene’s Predators jersey at this point, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to sign with Nashville. If he doesn’t, and Panarin isn’t in play, Nashville has to spend its money somewhere to justify trading P.K. Subban to the Devils in a glorified salary dump. Pavelski would make sense as a consolation prize. He’d slot into the top six at center or right wing, he’d help their woeful power play, and he’d get a legit chance at a championship on a good, deep team.
The Predators’ best-case scenario is probably to aim higher and younger, as they need to do something drastic after losing in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, but Pavelski makes for a fine backup plan.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Here’s another team mentioned as a candidate for a Pavelski visit in LeBrun’s report. When it comes to championship aspirations, there’s no competing with the stacked Lightning as a destination. Even after getting swept in the post-season, any team tying a single-season league record with 62 victories clearly has a strong chance at contending the next season. The other 62-win team, the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, won the Stanley Cup the following year. After an ugly choke, the idea of pursuing a seasoned veteran makes a certain degree of sense for Tampa. But how on Earth would GM Julien BriseBois make this deal happen financially? Even as is, the Bolts barely have the cash to re-sign RFA Brayden Point, let alone ink Pavelski at an AAV that could easily eclipse $7 million, with a three-year term a good bet. If they intend to pursue him, however, we must assume they’ve cooked up an idea of how it could work.
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