'He's meant everything to our group:' What's next for Joe Pavelski after 18 seasons in the NHL?

Every offseason, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill will chat with the organization’s younger players about a number of items. Part of that discussion includes what it means to be successful with details such as winning puck battles.

That’s when Nill begins asking a set of questions.

Are you stronger than Joe Pavelski? Are you faster than Joe Pavelski? Can you compete as hard as Joe Pavelski?

“They’ll say, ‘Yep’ and I’ll ask, ‘So why is it that he wins the battles and you don’t?'” Nill said. “I said, ‘That’s what you gotta do.’ You’ve got to find your way. Joe has found a way to do it. What it is? I don’t know. … He’s figured out a way to do it and that’s what he can pass on to other kids.”

Stories such as these can be found in great supply throughout the Stars organization whether it be from Nill, others in the front office, the coaching staff or players. Talking about Pavelski can make people feel many things ranging from reverence and respect to getting emotional because that’s what he means to so many.

This is why everybody wants to see Pavelski play at least one more season. This is also why nobody wants to see him leave the Stars no matter what he decides to do next, should he call time on a career that could see him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

A 2-1 loss Sunday to the Edmonton Oilers in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals ended the Stars’ season in the conference final for a consecutive campaign.

It’s also a defeat that may have brought Pavelski’s career to an end.

Pavelski, who turns 40 in July, had five shots on goal while logging 16:50 of ice time in what might have been his last game. For his career, he has scored 476 goals and notched 1,068 points while appearing in 1,332 career regular-season games. In the postseason, he has had 74 goals and 143 points in 200 playoff games throughout his career.

That career has allowed him to win everything but a Stanley Cup, and there’s a realistic chance it could remain that way. Between his age and the fact he’s a pending unrestricted free agent who has signed rolling one-year deals, there is a scenario in which Pavelski’s Game 6 on Sunday is his final one.

As of now, Pavelski may be the only person who truly knows what his next step will be going forward. Does he play at least one more year? Does he retire? And if he does choose to retire, what will be his next step, and could it involve joining the Stars’ front office in some role?

“I think he could probably pick whatever he wants [with his future] whether that’s GM, front office management, coaching. He’s a smart cat,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “He loves the game of hockey and knows a lot about it. I think the options are endless for him with whatever he decides to do.”

Go back to Game 6 of last year’s Western Conference semifinal against the Seattle Kraken. It’s not so much about what Pavelski did during the game. If anything, it’s more about what he did afterward.

The Stars had a chance to close out the series in six games in Seattle only to lose 6-3 with the Kraken forcing a Game 7 back in Dallas.

Stars assistant general manager Mark Janko was on his way to his hotel room when the double doors of the elevator parted and he saw Pavelski. It was 11:30 p.m., and Janko was curious why the Stars’ veteran forward was still awake when he and his teammates had the sort of long day they likely wanted to forget.

Pavelski told Janko that he’d just spent 30 minutes talking to Jason Robertson inside his hotel room. He wanted to check in on Robertson and make sure he was OK. Pavelski wanted to be a sounding board who could provide Robertson a sense of reassurance after a difficult loss in a series that would see Robertson go goalless.

Hearing this led to Janko inviting Pavelski back to his hotel room. That’s when Janko mentioned that he heard Stars defenseman Esa Lindell was having trouble with the loss. Pavelski texted Lindell to find out his room number and then left Janko’s room before spending another 30 minutes talking to a teammate.

“That’s the thing. He’s such a good leader,” Robertson said. “He cares about our players. He cares about everyone and wants to see us succeed. It definitely shows his character and his leadership. That’s something that will definitely follow him throughout his whole life.”

What Pavelski did for Lindell and Robertson is one of the many examples that’s often used to detail why he has been crucial from a player development standpoint.

Trace the steps of those who become an NHL GM. They follow one of two paths: Either they were involved with player development or some form of player procurement.

Benn, Nill, Wyatt Johnston and Ryan Suter have all seen the side of Pavelski that could allow him to make the transition into player development. There are some within the organization who have semi-joked that Pavelski is already doing player development while he’s still playing.

Pavelski was homegrown talent in San Jose, who developed into a captain who became one of the franchise’s all-time greats, and helped them challenge for the Stanley Cup for several seasons.

What he learned from older players in San Jose became part of the teachings he has passed on to a Stars franchise that is using homegrown talent to build a consistent Stanley Cup contender.

In Dallas, Pavelski seamlessly fit into a leadership group that already had an established captain in Benn. Pavelski made tipping pucks a group activity at practice, with the way he gets younger players involved. He has used the lessons learned over an 18-year career to share insights with a new generation.

“I can ask him anything, and he’s so good,” Johnston said. “He takes his time and shares thoughts if I want to ask him about something. He’ll also come up to me and tell me some stuff or talk to me if he sees something. It’s just natural. I try to do my best and ask him a lot of questions and learn from him and see his point of view with things.”

Pavelski has been an instrumental figure for a franchise that feels it’s on the cusp of winning a Stanley Cup. It’s what also makes the discourse within the Stars’ dressing room about Pavelski’s future one that draws several opinions.

Suter agrees that Pavelski has a strong love for the game that could help others. He said that Pavelski could become an NHL GM if he wanted. But Suter also sees a world in which his longtime childhood friend opts to spend more time coaching his children.

Pavelski and Suter’s children are the same age and play youth hockey together. And as Suter shared, Pavelski is actively involved with details such as doing video for the team.

“He can still play, right?” Suter said. “If he’s not playing I think then he’s going to be a hell of a youth hockey coach.”

Suter’s statement about Pavelski still being able to play, along with what Nill said about how he can still win puck battles, is what makes talking about his future complex.

Pavelski was the NHL’s second-oldest player during the 2023-24 season, but he has found a way to increase his offensive production as he gets older. From his rookie season at 22 to his age-29 season, Pavelski scored 415 points in 561 games for an average of 0.74 points per game. Since he turned 30, he has scored 653 points in 771 games, an average of 0.85 points per game, while remaining a nightly fixture in the Stars’ lineup.

“I think his hockey sense is through the roof. I think his hockey sense, positioning, the way he plays, the people he plays with, the positions he’s put in — it all benefits him,” Suter said of why Pavelski has found success at an advanced age. “I think he’s had a hell of a career to say the least. I think his style, he’s never been a good skater and he’ll be the first to tell you that. But he thinks the game. He’s ahead of it. He knows where the puck is going. He competes. He’s a bastard.”

Benn pointed out that any player who wants to join a front office once they’ve retired has certain personality traits. Namely, they’re someone who took hockey extremely seriously in one manner or another.

He said Pavelski has that sort of personality with the way he approaches his job. Talking about Pavelski made Benn recall the five seasons he spent with Jason Spezza in the years before the latter retired to work in a front office. Benn said Spezza was one of those players who took hockey extremely seriously, to the point that it only made sense he would join a front office when his career ended.

Spezza retired after the 2021-22 season. His first job was as the special assistant to the GM with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he’s currently the assistant GM for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We all love the game, but there are guys who go above and beyond,” Benn said. “It shows. You don’t play 19-plus years in this league and work your tail off and do all that if you don’t love the game. [Spezza] was an obvious one, and I think Joe can do whatever he wants.”

Benn, who has been the Stars’ captain since the 2013-14 season, said the love Pavelski has for hockey comes through with how he talks to teammates. He said Pavelski has shown a willingness to talk to players about anything, even if it means they’re going to have a difficult discussion.

“You know in the end, it’s going to make that player better, and it’s going to be what’s best for the team,” Benn said.

Johnston and Logan Stankoven are the most prominent examples of the development work Pavelski has done. They are among the group of young players who have spent countless hours doing on- and off-ice work with Pavelski as part of establishing their foundation as NHL players.

“There should be 32 teams trying to get someone like him to be working with them,” Johnston said. “It sure would be great if Dallas would be one. I can see him doing so many different roles in the front office.”

Pavelski spoke with ESPN during the second round about why he makes time to speak with his teammates, if he has any interest in joining a front office, and how long he would keep playing.

Those conversations, much like the ones he had with Robertson and Lindell, are about what it means to be a good teammate. Pavelski said being a responsible teammate is something that everyone in the Stars’ dressing room takes seriously, adding the appreciation he has for former Sharks teammates Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton and how they handled those moments.

“You learn a little bit of it but at the end of the day, it’s an experience that you’ve gone through yourself,” Pavelski said. “If it helps someone, great. If it doesn’t, so be it. But I’ve just always tried to be around.”

Pavelski said he loves being around the game, but if he were to join an organization in a front office role, it wouldn’t be right away.

Given his love for the game, exactly how much longer does Pavelski see himself remaining in the NHL?

“We’ll see,” Pavelski said. “We’re having a good time with this run. We’re in a good spot. There’s a lot of work to be done. So, we’re enjoying it and I’m just kind of living in the moment right now, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Nill, who also spoke to ESPN when the Stars were in the second round, said that Pavelski didn’t want his future to be a distraction during the playoffs, with Nill echoing that same sentiment.

“He’s going to know,” Nill said. “There comes a time when your body, your mind — you just say it’s enough. Right now, we’re focused on doing well in the playoffs and him being successful so we haven’t really brought it up. Over the last three years, we’ve just kinda talked about, year by year, we’ll just see where things go.”

Nill said that he doesn’t know when he would talk to Pavelski about potentially joining the Stars’ front office. But he did say that it’s a conversation they would have whenever Pavelski was ready to have that discussion.

If Pavelski decides to return to the ice, he’d be coming back to a team that would have 13 players under contract for next season. There are some, such as Thomas Harley, who remain under team control as they are pending restricted free agents, while others such as Matt Duchene and Chris Tanev are pending unrestricted free agents who could depart in free agency.

But if this was it for Pavelski, the sights and sounds from his final game could prove rather memorable.

He went through the handshake line after the Stars were eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in six games. In the line, he had an embrace with Oilers rookie forward Dylan Holloway, who played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin as Pavelski did. He had a brief chat with Stuart Skinner before having a long hug with former teammate Mattias Janmark. His longest moment was saved for when he met Corey Perry. Once divisional foes for several years, they became teammates for a season in Dallas. Having that many shared moments led to them spending 10 or so seconds together talking and hugging before Pavelski would eventually skate back to the bench.

Perhaps the most emotional moments came when the Stars spoke with the media. Johnston answered questions with the subdued tone that comes with being eliminated from the playoffs. But when the discussion shifted to Pavelski, his voice started to become shaky.

“I can’t thank him and his family enough for what they’ve done for me,” said Johnston, who lived with Pavelski’s family the past two seasons.

Benn appeared to have been teary-eyed when he was asked about Pavelski, while Tyler Seguin cracked a smile before asking, “Can we not ask about Joe?”

“He’s meant everything to our group,” Seguin said. “On the ice, off the ice. All our golf games, he’s improved all of those. Just an amazing person to have in here.”

The last person to comment on Pavelski was Stars coach Peter DeBoer. They were together for four-plus seasons in San Jose where they made it to one Stanley Cup Final and two Western Conference finals. Whenever DeBoer has talked about what made him come to Dallas, he has openly shared how Pavelski influenced his decision, which allowed them to spend two more years together.

“I don’t know if it’ll be Joe’s last game or not, but it was an absolute privilege of my coaching career to coach a guy like that,” DeBoer said. “Our young players are all better for having been around a guy like that.”

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