‘That’s just Joe’: From leadership to production, Joe Pavelski’s giving Stars everything

Moments after the Stars won a do-or-die Game 4 over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, Jake Oettinger stood in front of the whiteboard in the middle of the Stars locker room. The Stars netminder was fresh off of his first postseason overtime victory after Joe Pavelski fired a shot from the left circle past Adin Hill three minutes into the extra frame.

When Oettinger was asked if there was any surprise that it was Pavelski who delivered in that moment, Oettinger shrugged. Then, he smiled.

“Who else, right?” Oettinger said.

While Oettinger addressed the media, Pavelski stood around the corner in the hallway outside the locker room. Pavelski had broadcast media requests to fulfill before heading down the hall for the official postgame news conference.

While Pavelski waited in the hallway, a number of the Stars’ AHL prospects, including 2020 first-round pick Mavrik Bourque, filed out from the side area to head home for the night. Pavelski offered fist bumps to each of them, smiling and exchanging pleasantries as they walked past him.

“When I was in San Jose, we had three great captains in that room,” said Stars coach Pete DeBoer, whose history with Pavelski predates Dallas to a five-year stint with the Sharks. “Patty Marleau had been the captain. They had taken it from him (and) given it to Joe Thornton. It was taken from him before I got there. I came in and gave it to Joe Pavelski because we were without a captain.”

On Thursday, the Stars were without a captain. Stars captain Jamie Benn, the team’s second-leading scorer this season and primary dressing room leader, was unavailable as he served the first of a two-game suspension. Dallas was on the brink of elimination.

Without any formal directive, Pavelski did what he’s done his entire 17-year career. He put on his cape.

This Stars postseason has revolved around Pavelski. He played only a shade over one period in the first round, but the head injury that knocked Pavelski out of Game 1 against the Wild became a rallying cry for the team. They weren’t going to allow the lasting image of Pavelski’s season to be of him lying motionless on the ice behind the net.

“It’s a tight-knit group in there,” Pavelski said. “I know when I went out in Game 1 against Minny, I heard guys talking about it. Play hard for me and try to buy some extra time and be able to get back.”

Pavelski returned for Game 1 of the second round against the Seattle Kraken. With Tyler Seguin playing well in his place on the top line, DeBoer put Pavelski on the second line with Max Domi and Mason Marchment. Pavelski embraced the new spot in the lineup and in his first game back, Pavelski had a historic four-goal performance. He went on to score four more goals against the Kraken, leading the Stars in goals and points over the seven-game series.

The Stars entered Game 4 of the third round on the verge of getting swept by the Golden Knights. They were without two of their most productive forwards on the second-best line for the team in Benn and Evgenii Dadonov. Jason Robertson scored two Pavelski-esque goals to help the Stars match the Golden Knights on the scoreboard.

For many Stars fans, the team reaching overtime was a feeling of impending doom. Dallas has been a bad overtime team all season, including 0-4 in the postseason and 0-2 in the Western Conference finals against the Golden Knights. If the pattern held, the Stars’ season was minutes from being over.

Instead, the Stars drew a power play and Pavelski cashed in with his game-winner.

The goal was obviously a big one for the Stars but it was a big score for Pavelski, too. Pavelski became the active leader in playoff goals, surpassing Alex Ovechkin and sitting two goals above Sidney Crosby. The context of that grouping speaks volumes. Ovechkin and Crosby are former No. 1 selections in the two drafts, respectively, after Pavelski’s draft class. Pavelski is a former seventh-round pick, No. 205 in 2003.

“He’s ageless,” DeBoer said. “What do you say about him? I’ve seen that movie over and over again and it never gets old. He lives for those moments. He wants to be in those situations, always has, and delivers almost every time.”

The production a player provides is a core element of his value. Despite what his birth certificate says should be happening, Pavelski continues to excel. The soon-to-be 39-year-old was a force for the Stars in their 2020 Stanley Cup Final run, led the team in scoring the next two seasons and finished with 77 points this season. His nine goals this postseason are only behind Hintz’s 10 for the team lead, despite only playing one period in the first-round six-game set.

Pavelski’s production is a significant part of the Stars’ success. It’s also a gateway for him to where he provides just as much, if not greater, value to the organization.

The marks of Pavelski’s leadership are palpable at various levels. Four years ago, there weren’t three piles of pucks spread across the blue line before every morning skate, a defenseman hovering around them to shoot at the net where a handful of forwards rotated in at the net-front to practice tipping pucks. Pavelski established that routine, with some players like Ty Dellandrea and Benn regularly accompanying him and other forwards filtering in and out as well.

“Part of it is just, if you want to call it mentorship or whatever you want to call it, we’re out on the ice trying to figure things out together in certain areas,” Pavelski said. “Had a few more experiences over the years I try to share with (Dellandrea), what we see in each other’s games… I think that’s the biggest thing, is we’re in this together. We’re trying to help each other out and we want the same result at the end of the day. Just great people to be around. Delly and Wyatt (Johnston), we have a lot of fun together and go from there.”

Pavelski’s leadership isn’t manufactured or for show. He also doesn’t require formal labels to immerse himself in the role. Former Stars head coach Rick Bowness would remark that he didn’t have to assign Pavelski as an alternate captain because Pavelski would lead regardless. It opened up the spot to give the letter to another player that needed it to break into a leadership role.

When Pavelski came to Dallas, he brought his experience as a former captain. The Stars already had a captain entrenched in Benn. Over the past four years, Pavelski has maintained his own flavor and been an asset to Benn in the leadership group.

“I think you don’t understand probably the role until you’ve been in it,” Pavelski said. “For me in my time in San Jose, we had the support of the group. Guys like Joel Ward, Paul Martin doing things with guys, (Thornton) was unbelievable at that time, Patty, (Brent Burns); we had a great leadership cast. When I came to Dallas, all I wanted to do was support Jamie and know what a big job and probably what he’s feeling at times with it. Just add extra stuff on the side wherever I could because you understand, as a player, you just want to help your teammates and you just want them to help you.

“That was something I took throughout my career is you want to show up, you want to compete for the guys next to you because that’s what you expect of them and that’s probably the No. 1 thing with leadership: Just show up and play, compete, try to help guys have them help you and then just be a group that’s excited to be out there together.”

Pavelski leads by example. He also doesn’t have to work too hard to achieve buy-in. His resume and the way he continues to carry himself do all that’s needed.

“He’s the conscience of our group,” DeBoer said. “He’s out there blocking shots at 38 years old. With the career he’s had, how many goals he’s scored and all the accolades he’s had, how do you sit on the bench and not take your turn and do the same thing.”

Some elements of Pavelski’s leadership get more public shine than others. Pavelski’s housing and mentoring of Johnston has been well-documented throughout the season. The chemistry he’s built with Robertson and Hintz has escalated the development of two of Dallas’ brightest stars.

But there are countless other things that stem from Pavelski’s leadership. When the Stars found themselves in the middle of an adverse situation on Tuesday following Benn’s crosscheck on Mark Stone, Pavelski stood in front of the cameras and took every question from the media. After Pavelski went out with an injury in Game 1 against the Wild, pucks were still lined up across the blue line the next morning skate. Dellandrea was in front of the net, carrying on Pavelski’s routine and tipping pucks.

Some of the gain isn’t even connected to what Pavelski does or how he leads. His mere presence is enough. With much being made this series about DeBoer’s departure from Vegas, the Stars coach was asked what led to his arrival in Dallas last summer. DeBoer took a brief pause before answering.

“Well, the first thing that comes to mind is Joe Pavelski,” DeBoer said. “My captain in San Jose, always had great respect for him as a player. When I talked to him about the situation, he really felt the group can win. He talked really highly about the organization, ownership and he talked really highly about Jim Nill and what a great man and a great person to work for and the organization that he built there. I trust Joe with my life. It was really one conversation with him.

“The obvious things (too). I’ve been in the league for 15 years. You go into Dallas, it’s a great city, great fanbase, great environment in the rink. All of those things. Lifestyle, weather. All of those things are important but for me, it was my conversation with Joe Pavelski. I think I’d follow that guy anywhere.”

DeBoer reformed the Stars on the fly and has managed to get immediate results. He credits a lot of that to the presence of Pavelski in the room as somebody who served as a manifestation of DeBoer’s resume and previous success. When asked if he funnels messaging to other players through Pavelski, DeBoer shrugged it off.

“I don’t have to,” DeBoer said. “Honestly, Joe could do my job and his job. If I’m thinking of it, Joe’s already thought about it. Let’s put it that way. That’s just Joe.”

The current hole the Stars are hoping to dig out of is also a good example of how deep Pavelski’s experience bank is.

Dallas is trying to become the fifth team in NHL history to achieve the rare feat of winning a series after falling behind 3-0. Pavelski was part of the last time such a thing happened, on the wrong side of the equation when his Sharks mounted a 3-0 series lead in 2014 before losing to Jonathan Quick, Alec Martinez and the Kings. When Pavelski was asked about it, he tapped further into his experience, recalling when his Sharks had a 3-0 series lead over the Red Wings in 2011 but managed to survive in Game 7.

“They’re not fun when you’re on the other side,” Pavelski said. “There was one we were up 3-0 on Detroit and thinking back to that, you saw just how focused that team got. All the pucks went in, all the shots were directed to the net. There was a heightened sense of urgency.”

Beating the Golden Knights was going to be a tough task from the outset. It got tougher when the Stars lost their third straight game to open the series. And it got even more challenging when they lost their captain for two games. But the Stars still have a captain — Captain America. It’s a big reason why the Stars believe they still have a chance.

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)