Programming note: Jets-Sharks coverage begins Thursday at 7 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet California
SAN JOSE – When the Sharks replaced Ron Wilson with Todd McLellan in the summer of 2008, the former Red Wings assistant had to quickly get to know an entire roster personally and professionally.
Forward Joe Pavelski was preparing for his second full NHL season, and McLellan specifically remembers that those first few encounters with the Plover, Wisconsin native were a bit different than some of the other guys.
“You could tell at that point that Pav was astute. He wanted to know how we were going to do things,” said McLellan, who brought assistant coach Jay Woodcroft with him from Detroit. “He asked a lot of questions about people we had in Detroit – the Pavel Datsyuks, the Henrik Zetterbergs. He wanted to know how they did things.
“Where others were meet-and-greets and that type of stuff, Pav was already digging, trying to find ways.”
Pavelski isn’t the biggest guy, listed at a generous five-foot-11 and 190 pounds. His skating ability will never be confused with Bobby Orr or teammate Patrick Marleau, and has earned him the nickname “Pokey” from linemate Brent Burns, a good-natured shortening of “slow poke.” He doesn’t have the hardest shot, and his path to the NHL was longer than most players who make a permanent home in the world’s best hockey league.
But Pavelski, now tied for second in the NHL with 27 goals, has developed into one of the cornerstones of the Sharks franchise for other reasons, starting with his battle level and his brain.
“He’s not Marian Gaborik or Patrick Marleau when it comes to skating. So, his mind has to get him to places where their legs get them,” McLellan said. “Pav has that sense. He knows where to go. Then when he gets there, he has the courage to stay in it.”
Pavelski said: “This is my eighth year playing professionally, so you have to learn to keep getting better. It’s on you to learn and try to grow your game a little bit.”
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Pavelski’s first full season in the NHL came in 2007-08 at the age of 23, when he put up 40 points in 82 games. His production has been steady since then, including a 66-point season in 74 games in 2009-10, but now the 29-year-old is on pace for the best season of his career with 50 points in 50 games so far.
The five-year, $30 million contract extension he signed last summer, which kicks in next season, looks like a bargain. Pavelski trails only Alexander Ovechkin in goals, and has 18 in his last 20 games.
It took him a second to think about whether he’s playing the best hockey of his career.
“I don’t know. … As far as point production, it’s been going in a really good way. Yeah, you’d have to say yeah,” he said.
“You play the game to produce and be on the positive side on a nightly basis. We have a lot of guys that are playing really well right now, and it’s made it easier.”
Pavelski is the most versatile player among the Sharks’ forward group, and is routinely on the ice at even strength, the penalty kill and the power play. He’s constantly being moved up and down the lineup as a center or a wing, and although the coaching staff would ultimately prefer Pavelski to center the third line behind the Joe Thornton and Logan Couture lines, McLellan and staff know Pavelski can play wherever and whenever they need him to.
“I think the fact that he's been all over the place – and what I mean by that is right wing, left wing, center, playing the point – you get a better feel for the game when you play different positions," McLellan said. "And that experience over time has allowed him to be a pretty productive guy."
Pavelski agreed, saying, “Playing a lot of different positions helps. You see games in certain ways.”
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Pavelski wasn’t a lock to get drafted when the Sharks chose him in the seventh round of the 2003 draft, for many of the reasons already mentioned. He spent two seasons in the USHL, and then two more at the University of Wisconsin, growing his game.
“All those things factor in, and you drop down a little bit,” Pavelski said of his draft position.
“It was one of the reasons to go the college route. It gives you that extra time to develop and kind of get stronger, play the game and learn the game. It might not be the fastest track to the NHL, but it was the right one for me.”
Teammate Dan Boyle has said more than once that he’s carried a chip on his shoulder for much of his career after not getting drafted at all, and it helped to turn him into an elite player. Pavelski, who was taken behind no fewer than 204 other players in a draft more than 10 years ago, can relate.
“Obviously, you want to be a high-end caliber player. If you don’t have the profile right away, there’s going to have to be a lot of hard work,” he said. “With that, you learn a lot of things along the way to hopefully get to that point one time.”
Suffice it to say, Pavelski is at that point.
McLellan said: “He may do the most with the talent he has.”