From Little Joe to Captain America: How Joe Pavelski became the face of San Jose

Financial realities mean that Joe Pavelski is now a Dallas Star, but he’ll always truly be a Shark.

Most people know of the infamous ESPN profile on USA Hockey’s 2014 Olympic team. You know, the one where they left Bobby Ryan out because he “couldn’t spell intense,” axed Seth Jones because Brian Burke had a nightmare about him and agonized over picking Jack Johnson, a defenseman who didn’t even belong in the top-four of an NHL team by that point, let alone on an actual Olympic roster.

Overlooked in the profile is a small sentence on the forwards: “Also joining the group of ‘locks’ among the forwards is versatile San Jose forward Joe Pavelski and scoring dynamo Phil Kessel, who is coming off something of a renaissance season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

That’s almost all the time the profile spent on Pavelski. In a profile containing almost 13,000 words and over 800 sentences, around eight of those mentioned Pavelski, and none focused solely on him.

In a sense, maybe that was a metaphor for a player whose career was symbolized not by hands of silk or feet of quicksilver, but by the heart of a lion, the versatility of a Swiss Army Knife, and the hand-eye coordination of a Jedi. An unheralded seventh-round pick in arguably the most stacked draft in NHL history, Pavelski was rarely the focus of a cover story and almost never the center of attention. And yet, somewhere along the lines, he morphed into one of the most bankable goal-scorers and one of the most respected leaders in the game with nary a whisper.

This is the story of Joe Pavelski.

Little Joe.

That’s what they called the short, scrawny 22-year-old forward when he cracked the NHL roster in 2006. In a sense, it was an honor; big Joe was Joe Thornton, the unquestioned face of the franchise and a top-100 player in NHL history. To even be mentioned in the same sentence as him would be something many junior hockey players would have given their right arm for. To supplant him as team captain one day was something none of them would have even dreamed of.

Seventh rounders aren’t supposed to be good. Fewer than five percent of them ever come close to making the NHL, and you can count the number of stars from that group on your fingers. So when Joe Pavelski received his first call-up, most people viewed the pick as an absolute win. Perhaps he’d become a useful depth player and prevent the team from splashing a couple million on fourth-liners like Aaron Downey.

That was the prevailing thought, at least, before Pavelski scored seven goals in his first 12 games and flipped everyone’s expectations on their head.

It kept getting better. He followed 14 and 19 goals in his first two seasons with back-to-back seasons of 25 goals, during which Pavelski established himself as a second-line staple in San Jose. He had turned himself into a solid, if unheralded, secondary scorer who had exceeded everyone’s wildest dreams as a prospect.

Then the 2010 playoffs happened, and all hell broke loose.

When NHL historians examine the story of the San Jose Sharks, they’ll find few stretches more dominant or vital than the one that Pavelski put up against Colorado and Detroit to help the Sharks take the first steps towards shedding the “chokers” label that had haunted them for so long.

With 32 seconds left in the game and the Sharks facing the prospect of going down 2-0 against the Avalanche, Pavelski scored the goal that arguably saved Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s careers in San Jose, tying the game and allowing the Sharks to win in overtime. Then, with the team reeling from Dan Boyle’s own goal in Game 3 and facing a 2-1 series deficit, Pavelski netted the overtime winner in Game 4 before potting another goal in a dominant Game 5 performance.

After torching Colorado with two goals and an assist in Game 6, he proceeded to put up the exact same numbers in Games 1 and 2 against Detroit, helping the Sharks take an unassailable 2-0 series lead en route to thrashing the defending Conference Champions in five games.

No one knew exactly what was happening, because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. He was a seventh-rounder for a reason — he was a decent scorer at the lower levels, but conventional wisdom dictated that he wasn’t that naturally gifted. His skating was passable at best, and he didn’t have Ryane Clowe’s physicality, Joe Thornton’s passing ability or Patrick Kane’s silky hands. Sure, he had a pretty good shot — you don’t usually score seven goals in your first 11 shootout attempts unless you’re a decent shooter. But unless you’re Patrik Laine, shooting isn’t a skill that compensates for deficiencies in other parts of the game.

Yet there he was, defying every prospect curve and driving play as a key cog on teams that included Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle. Instead of more heralded prospects like Lukas Kaspar and Jamie McGinn, it was Pavelski who was picking up the slack and carrying the team to wins when they needed it most.

The Big Pavelski.

That’s what they began calling him after his 2010 playoff heroics. No longer in Thornton’s shadow, Pavelski became a core player in his own right. The ever-improving Wisconsin native wasn’t content to stop improving after his playoff heroics. In 2010-11, with San Jose sputtering outside the playoffs at the midpoint of the season, Pavelski, playing as a third-line center, showed that he had developed into a remarkably responsible player on both sides of the ice, kickstarting a resurgence that saw them finish second in the West and putting up a career-high 66 points. Despite San Jose eventually losing to the Vancouver Canucks in the third round, absolutely nobody was calling them chokers anymore after back-to-back Western Conference Final appearances.

His point production was at a (then) career-high, but overlooked during the analysis of that season is Pavelski’s astounding improvement on the power play, which was as key of a factor as any in San Jose’s success. Cementing a spot on the team’s lethal top unit, Pavelski scored at an astounding rate of 4.9 primary points per hour, up from a relatively paltry 2.9 the year before.

It was only the beginning of his rise. Before the 2011-12 season, San Jose dealt Dany Heatley to Minnesota for the perpetually injured Martin Havlat. Instead of putting Havlat on Thornton’s wing, however, Todd McLellan and Doug Wilson decided that they’d be better off putting Pavelski there, and they were richly rewarded with 31 goals and 30 assists in another quietly excellent season.

By this point, Pavelski had become the team’s Swiss-Army knife. His ability to drive play was quietly excellent and so he spent time bouncing between the top two lines for a while after, even spending some time as the third-line center as the team’s needs demanded. He had the uncanny knack of being able to score with anyone while doing everything expected of him, and McLellan utilized it fiercely in a lineup so starved for depth that T.J. Galiardi received top-line minutes. Pavelski spent time on both wings and at center across the top three lines and kept producing at a consistently solid rate.

It’s important to consider what we really mean when we say a player is naturally talented. For some, the phrase conjures up images of Joe Thornton threading a pass through four defenders to find Jonathan Cheechoo’s stick. For others, it reminds them of Pavel Datsyuk’s shootout dekes, which has put about as many jockstraps as there are retired numbers into the rafters of Joe Louis Arena. Almost nobody thinks natural talent means the ability to think and read the game at an incredibly high level. But that’s exactly what Joe Pavelski was great at.

Everyone says Joe Pavelski was never really elite in anything, but this does the player a tremendous disservice. Pavelski thought hockey at a level few other players could even access. He was always looking to find ways to leverage whatever tools he had to wield maximum damage. It was not about what he couldn’t do, but instead what he could; for example, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a fast skater, because who needs speed when you’re camped out in front of the net or in the slot, armed with that wicked shot and hand-eye coordination? He was always adding something new to his arsenal to improve himself. His nose for goal seemed to keep getting better and better, especially with the addition of deflections to his repertoire.

And it was that last skill that was an interesting addition, especially given that it made Pavelski who he was in the next stage of his career. You see, around this time, something curious began to happen. Pavelski had always been a solid scorer, but he soon began to show the beginnings of his transformation into the dominant net-front presence whose tips were the most dangerous in the league. Years of spending hours after practice tipping and deflecting unruly pucks began to unlock the full potential of an athlete with all-world hand-eye coordination.

So when Tomas Hertl’s knee injury in December 2013 derailed San Jose’s top line, Pavelski was placed back onto Thornton’s wing and cemented his spot as an elite forward. He made his living in front of the goalie’s crease, tallying a career-best 41 goals, trailing only Corey Perry and Alex Ovechkin in that metric.

It’s worth noting that at this point, his versatility was so highly regarded by hockey brain trusts that USA Hockey planned to have him play point on the Olympic team’s power play unit. Let’s re-emphasize just how absurd this was: the player who was soon becoming the league’s finest crease-crasher was playing point on a strong Olympic unit’s power-play.

That was Joe Pavelski. Somehow, though, no one batted an eye, because really, who was watching?

Captain America.

That was the final phase and nickname of Pavelski’s San Jose career, and arguably the one that most Sharks fans will remember him by. After a 2014 reverse-sweep so unrealistic that it was previously only found in cricketing shots, Doug Wilson had seen enough and decided to (very questionably) strip Joe Thornton of the club captaincy, rolling with four alternates for the 2014-15 season: Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

It might be more accurate to say that there were four alternates in name only. To anyone watching, it was clear that Joe Pavelski had become the true leader of this Sharks team. He was the one player constantly making himself available for the media, responding professionally and calmly to questions in the most tumultuous season in franchise history. So it came as no surprise when, prior to the beginning of the 2015-16 season, new head coach Pete DeBoer named Joe Pavelski his official captain.

In hindsight, it seems like it was his role to take all along; this was, after all, the fellow who spent 20 minutes after a game-winning playoff performance without drawing a single ounce of attention to himself, focusing only on the team’s accomplishments. His teammates were also clearly impressed; Joe Thornton even stated that Pavelski was the team’s de-facto captain, with or without a letter. Everyone had been won over by Pavelski, and the team, whose locker room was once so fractured that Logan Couture publicly called it out after the first playoff miss in over a decade, came together and made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

Front and center, of course, was Joe Pavelski, with 38 goals and 78 points. He had, by this point, transformed himself into one of the five best goal-scorers in the entire league and was a reliable bet for 30 goals a year at the height of the Dead Puck Era. San Jose began to shoot for rebounds at this time in the hope that Pavelski would tip them, and entire offenses were designed around the chaos caused by the one-two punch of Brent Burns and Joe Pavelski. Pavelski had become one of the best players to ever pull on a Sharks sweater and was almost certainly the most respected leader in franchise history.

Quite a transformation for the kid who was once projected to be a decent middle-six forward in the American Hockey League.

Jon Marchessault will go to his deathbed swearing that it was an officiating error that cost Vegas the series. Others will say that, while the five-minute-major might have cost them, the team simply crumbled against the full force of a Sharks team and fanbase so outraged by what had just happened that they unleashed the power of a thousand krakens on Marc-Andre Fleury’s net.

You know what we’re talking about, of course. We’re talking about The Hit.

That hit — the one where Cody Eakin cross-checked Pavelski after a faceoff loss in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Quarterfinals, sending him stumbling backwards towards Paul Stastny, who then thrust him to the ice in a manner eerily resemblant of a WWE Smackdown special. The one that made every person recoil in horror at the aftermath. Pavelski lay on his back, dazed and unsure about what had just happened, with his head dripping blood from the hit.

When trying to gauge the level of respect Pavelski commands among his teammates, there is perhaps no sight more iconic or telling than that of Joe Thornton, the face of the franchise and the very individual he had displaced as captain, holding a towel to Pavelski’s head while guiding him off the ice with the help of Evander Kane, Brent Burns, and the Sharks trainers. After ensuring the referees gave the play a five-minute major, Thornton immediately called over Logan Couture and the first power play unit and screamed at them to tie the game by any means necessary on the ensuing power play.

San Jose had trailed Vegas 3-0 before Pavelski’s injury. The chances of them coming back for a win were in the same realm of probability as the chances of a recently-fed dog realizing that it was not, in fact, in desperate need of food.

Four minutes later, a shell-shocked Vegas team looked on as Kevin Labanc ripped a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 4-3, San Jose. There was only going to be one possible outcome from there, as Barclay Goodrow sealed a 5-4 win for San Jose in double overtime. Suddenly, Joe Pavelski, who for so long couldn’t even get people to notice he was winning games on the ice, was now front and center in people’s minds as the reason for San Jose’s victory, and he wasn’t even playing.

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear he was a Marvel superhero.

Joe Pavelski is now a Dallas Star. The harsh financial realities of today’s system meant that San Jose was never going to be able to match or take on the risk of the three-year, $21 million offer that Dallas had made.

Neither side should be faulted for the resulting outcome, and, more importantly, none of that takes away from what Pavelski has accomplished in San Jose. He leaves as the franchise’s second-leading goalscorer of all time, but his legacy goes far beyond the numbers here.

When San Jose needed someone to step up to support Thornton and Marleau in the late 2000s, it was Pavelski picking up the slack with his Colorado heroics. When San Jose needed a forward to fill in a slot in a pinch, it was Pavelski answering the call. And when San Jose needed someone to lead the team out of a dark and tumultuous time, it was Pavelski again, standing in front of reporters and answering every pointed and targeted question. Pavelski’s No. 8 has been a constant presence on the ice and in the locker room, with its wearer providing stability and on-ice excellence to a franchise for 13 years.

Of course, the next time the number is seen in teal, it will be from the rafters of SAP Center — a forever home for San Jose’s forever captain.