Joe Pavelski had lasted 13 seasons and nearly 1,000 games with the San Jose Sharks before hitting free agency in the summer of 2019.
He was leaving the "C" and the sea behind in California, without a Stanley Cup.
In the last NHL courting period, Pavelski’s phone was buzzing. What team wouldn’t want a leader, a 10-time 50-point centre, one of the greatest tippers in the game, and a guy who routinely elevated his play come post-season and refused to slow down in his 30s?
But this wasn’t so much about what Pavelski’s multiple suitors wanted. This was about what he wanted.
"If I was gonna be leaving San Jose, I wanted to go to a place that was going to have a good chance to win and give me an opportunity to get back to where we're trying to get to," Pavelski says.
So, he narrowed his decision to two finalists and paid an in-person visit to each — Dallas and Tampa Bay. Two of the sunniest, southern-most NHL cities. Two tax-free states. Two clubs with an established, talented core firmly in a go-for-it stage of their contention window.
And most important for our story: the only two teams left standing in 2019-20, the longest hockey season ever.
Shedding the teal, Pavelski opted for green over blue, signing a three-year, $21-million whopper.
"I liked the goalies here. I liked the structure defensively. They play a lot of one-goal games and didn't give up a lot of goals. And I always believe you need that, especially in the playoffs, to find those types of wins," Pavelski explains. "There's also some high-end talent on this team as well."
We’ll find out 10 days or less whether Pavelski made the correct call, but certainly his logic has proven sound.
En route to Pavelski’s second crack at Round 4, his Stars have thrived in thin margins and bullied in crowded trenches. The goaltending has been phenomenal. And the high-end talent, from Miro Heiskanen to John Klingberg, Jamie Benn to Alexander Radulov, has risen to the moment.
Dallas is an incredible 10-1 in one-goal playoff games and 5-0 when the battle stretches past the 60-minute mark.
"The biggest trend in the series was they won the net-fronts on both ends. There's a lot of trench warfare in front of both nets," said coach Peter DeBoer of the Vegas Golden Knights, Dallas’s most recent victim. "They were a little heavier, little harder, in those areas."
Considering the disciplined defensive play of both Cup finalists and the excellence of their starting goalies — Anton Khudobin and Andrei Vasilevskiy will each be given Conn Smythe consideration if their team goes the distance — we should be in for a few more one-goal affairs, starting Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.
Since being drafted back in 2003 as a seventh-round afterthought, Pavelski, now 36, has constructed a sterling career by thriving the trenches. Even past his prime, Pavelski has the hands to swipe face-offs and redirect slappers in traffic, plus the brains to make the right play in tight and pounce at the proper time.
So, while Pavelski’s 14 goals and 31 points in a shortened season had some questioning Jim Nill’s signing, the playoffs are where Pavelski proves his worth.
He erupted for 23 points in 24 post-season games during the Sharks’ painful runner-up campaign in 2016. And since entering the bubble, he’s pumped his points-per-game rate for Dallas from 0.46 in the regular season to 0.67, while logging 18 minutes a night.
Pavelski’s nine playoffs goals and seven at even-strength co-lead the team, with Denis Gurianov.
On the eve of the Stanley Cup Final, Nill too thought back to Pavelski’s recruiting visit.
"You start to build a team, and you want to add some pieces, and all of a sudden names like Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry pop up. They've had success where they've been. They still are driven to be even better, and it's how they affect other players," Nill said.
"They've taught me things, and I think they've taught the coaching staff things. They’re winners, and there is a reason you want those players on your team. I'm so happy for those guys. They've come together and gelled this team and pulled us through a lot of this."
Funny how life twists, the places our decisions can bring us.
Pavelski and Perry were forever enemies in those fierce California battles and rivals in some epic U.S.-versus-Canada tilts. Yet there they were Friday, sharing one podium and one objective at 2020 Stanley Cup Final media day.
Both chuckled and smiled at how things have worked out. Neither wished to leave their former team — Perry was unceremoniously bought out by the Anaheim Ducks last summer — yet here they are, dodging rebuilds and unified by their boyhood dream.
"There's been a lot of hockey played between us," Perry said. "It's nice to be sitting here beside him right now and doing this."
Pavelski grinned wide through his playoff beard.
"It's fun to be on the same side," Pavelski added. "A few games ago, we did one of these [Zoom calls with reporters], and I just kind of looked up at the screen and saw it, and I just kind of started laughing. This is great, here in the playoffs with Corey Perry. It's been awesome."
Also awesome: a golden opportunity to prove yourself right, to have signed a contract with a team one year before it became Stanley Cup champion.
"That's all you can ask for," Pavelski said.