The NHL scouts parading through Waterloo, Iowa, usually said the same thing about Joe Pavelski.
“‘He can’t skate, he’s not big enough. He can’t skate, he’s not big enough’,” recalls P.K. O’Handley, who coached the San Jose Sharks forward back when he captained the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks nearly 15 years ago.
Concerns ran deep enough that Pavelski, second only to superstar Alex Ovechkin in goals over the past three NHL seasons and the current Conn Smythe favourite with 13 playoff goals, fell to the seventh round of the 2003 draft, going 205th overall to the Sharks.
While intrigued by Pavelski, the Sharks didn’t even use their first (of two) seventh-round picks to take him, opting instead for a French-Canadian forward who never played an NHL game.
How does a player with such apparent flaws — a lack of size and speed — rise into one of the league’s premier players and goal-scorers?
It starts with a feel for the game that former coaches describe as uncommon. The five-foot-11, 190-pound Pavelski may not have been pretty to watch, but he could process the game quickly and that allowed him to make a play or score a goal.
“He’s always thinking about four steps ahead of everybody else, even at the high school level, at the junior level and then ultimately at our level, here at Wisconsin,” said Mark Osiecki, a former Badgers assistant who recently returned to the university’s program.
“His mind for the game, his will to succeed, is at a super, super high level.”
“His hockey IQ, even at 17,” added O’Handley, “was off the chart.”
It’s one of the first elements O’Handley noticed when he inherited Pavelski upon assuming the coaching job in Waterloo. He saw a kid who could think the game and was highly driven.
Osiecki remembers when Pavelski wanted to improve in the faceoff circle, he watched video of NHL players. He worked on blocking shots as a defender, tipping shots on the other end, performing the subtler aspects of the game which have made him into a force for the Sharks, where he’s spent his entire NHL career.
Pavelski, 31, is an ace jack of all trades for San Jose. He’s a focal point of a top power-play unit, kills penalties and wins 55 per cent of his faceoffs, among the top marks in the league.
Only Ovechkin and Stamkos, both No. 1 overall picks, have more goals than Pavelski over the past five seasons and only Ovechkin has scored more since the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
The coaches in Waterloo still pull out the old VHS tapes to look back at Pavelski. They see a player scoring in all the same ways as today: wicked shots from the faceoff circle on the power play, tipped shots in front of the net and greasy one-timers off one knee.
“He’s got unbelievable hand-eye co-ordination,” says O’Handley, for whom Pavelski scored 57 goals over two seasons. “You should see what he can do with a golf ball on the golf course in the middle of the trees, it’s unbelievable.”
Unlike Ovechkin and Stamkos, known for scoring in one or two prominent ways, Pavelski scores in bunches every which way.
A look at Pavelski’s tally of 13 post-season goals reveals the variety: six slapshots, two tips, two wrist shots, one wraparound, one backhand and one snapshot.
Stamkos, by contrast, scored 28 of his 36 regular-season goals either by wrist shot or slapshot.
Hailing from a small town in Central Wisconsin, Pavelski has always been overlooked to some degree, dating back to the draft and even after that to his days as a Badger. At that time, Robbie Earl, a one-time Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, was more highly thought of on a Wisconsin squad stocked with future NHLers, including St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott.
Osiecki and O’Handley both speak of Pavelski’s character in glowing terms and O’Handley insists that it’s not fluff.
“It seems like it’s too good to be true, but it’s all true,” he said.
O’Handley cites Pavelski’s history of winning, which includes a high school championship, Clark Cup with Waterloo, national title with Wisconsin and silver medal at the 2010 Olympics, as further proof of his character.
All that’s seemingly missing for the Sharks captain is a Stanley Cup, which his team is threatening to win for the first time. They advanced to the Cup final Wednesday night after a win over the St. Louis Blues.
Neither O’Handley nor Osiecki is surprised by Pavelski’s ascent.
“Did I think he would be at this level of scoring? I didn’t know that,” O’Handley says. “But am I surprised that he’s in the National Hockey League and his coaches rave about him because of the person that he is and the competitor that he is and all that?