A whirlwind NHL beginning for Pavelski

By Janine Pilkington

Twenty-two-year-old Joe Pavelski didn’t waste any time looking for his first goal as a San Jose Shark. It arrived his first night on the job, during the third period of the Sharks’ Nov. 22 game against the LA Kings. Pavelski made his way to the edge of the face-off circle just in time to knock a rebound past Kings goalie Mathieu Garon.

“It’s cool — you know it’s something you dream about, your first NHL game,” he said. “I got that first goal off my back right away so I didn’t have to think about it. There are other nights to come, and once you get one, you know more can come. I just try to stay focused, work hard out there and keep getting them.”

A few more games, a few more goals to go along with that, and the young forward is clearly riding high on the experience. Since he opted out of his final two years of college at the University of Wisconsin and signed with the Sharks over the summer of 2006, his professional career has been on the fast track. He began the 2006-07 season with the Worcester Sharks in the AHL. In his 16-game stay at the beginning of the season, Pavelski racked up 26 points, and earned AHL rookie of the month honors for October. By late November, he was summoned west.

“I got called at 4 am,” Pavelski said, laughing. “Luckily I’d talked it over, about what I needed to do to be ready for it, so I was kind of prepared.”

It was an injury-depleted San Jose roster that set the recall into motion. With Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek out of the lineup, Pavelski got his chance a bit earlier than expected. He centered the team’s second line between veteran Patrick Marleau and second-year NHL’er Steve Bernier. A few games later, they decided to try Pavelski on the top line with Joe Thornton.

“We’re more than thrilled with his play of late,” said Sharks’ Assistant Coach Tim Hunter. “All we have to do is wait and see if it’s going to drop off now, because a lot of young guys come up and get all that energy playing in their first NHL game. Once that adrenaline rush goes by, we’ll see if he can play up here.”

So far, Pavelski has shown no indication that he’s going to slow down. He’s averaging over 16 minutes a game and has had little problem keeping up with the pace. The rookie has 10 points, seven of them goals, in his first 12 games. Four of his goals came on the power play, and two were game-winning.

“It’s pretty cool, playing in the NHL, last year you’re watching it on TV and you’re like whoa, these guys are good, you don’t know how far away you are,” said Pavelski. “Once you turn pro — it’s just happened so fast now.”

While his seemingly innate ability to find the back of the net will certainly help him to stay at the NHL level, there are other areas of his game that are equally as important. One of those things will be his endurance over the course of the season. He’s inexperienced, and at 5’11 and not quite 200 lbs, his strength and ability to withstand the pressures of playing against experienced NHL’ers is something his coaches will keep an eye on.

“We call it hockey strength,” explained Hunter. “Battling and staying on his feet — there’s a lot of guys that are over 200 lbs in this league, and he has to be able to stand his ground and battle for pucks. He has to come through with pucks and not get shoved to the ice or squashed in those battles — so far he’s done a pretty good job.”

Also a factor will be the team’s schedule. Three games played in a four-day period can be both physically and mentally exhausting for a younger player who might not yet be accustomed to the schedule, especially when it’s stretched out over an entire hockey season. This, coupled with the added pressure and intensity of playing at the NHL level, could chip away at his game, and he will need to continue to stay focused and pace himself so that fatigue does not take its toll.

These are all things that will come with time and experience, but right now, Pavelski is demonstrating that he has a strong instinct for the game. His playmaking skills, timing, and ability to create opportunities are part of what has made him successful at every level.

“He’s always a half a step or a step ahead of what’s going on on the ice, and he’s ready to make that play before he gets to the puck,” said Hunter.

Until recently, the seventh-round draft pick (2003) hadn’t received anywhere near the attention of some of his counterparts. Yet Pavelski has always been a winner, and more importantly, he has always been a hard worker. It is precisely this dedication to improving his game that has carried him this far, and will help decide how far he goes in his professional hockey career.

“We watched him two years ago in college, and he had a lot of details that he needed to work on,” said Hunter. “Last season, we watched his games again, and he really paid attention to those details, and became a real force on the team he played with in Wisconsin.”

At this point, it’s not certain whether he’ll spend the remainder of the season with San Jose, or be sent back to Worcester. Pavelski is grounded enough to recognize that the possibility still exists he could be returned to the AHL, but he intends to continue to work hard to stay where he is. He is living in the moment, and trying to enjoy every minute of his first run in the NHL. The things he will learn from being around veteran NHLers, as well as that first-hand experience of being a part of an NHL team, will be invaluable to his development.

“I’m playing with guys who have wanted to do this their whole life,” he said. “Just to be up here with guys that are playing that much better and can move the puck, you know that your game’s going to get that much better. You’re going to become a better skater, just because you have to in order to survive up here. It’s kind of all you ask for, to keep getting better and, one of the best ways to do it is to learn from the best people in the world.”

Of course, Pavelski has also attracted a fair amount of media attention in his brief professional career. When asked how many interview requests he’d gotten lately, he just laughed.

“Yeah, there’s been a few,” he admitted. “But I guess that goes with the territory.”

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.