Joe Pavelski prioritized one thing above all else when he left the Sharks in free agency last summer.
That factor led him to choose between the two teams that will play in the Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton, Alberta, beginning Saturday at 4:30 p.m. PT on NBC: the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Dallas Stars. Pavelski picked the Stars, signing a three-year contract with Dallas at the start of free agency.
“For where we were in San Jose (as a family) and what San Jose meant to us, if I was going to be leaving, I definitely wanted a place where I had an opportunity to win,” Pavelski told The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun on Thursday. “There were certain teams that identified themselves, you know, clearer than others. Ones that I had visions for. And then also there were certain ones that had mutual respect coming back. So it kind of cleared a few things up. I had some good options. And I went from there.”
The former Sharks captain's decision looks like a can't-lose proposition now, but that didn't always appear it would be the case. While the Lightning were the Eastern Conference's second-best team a season after winning the President's Trophy, Pavelski's Stars opened the regular season with just one win -- in 3-on-3 overtime -- in the first nine games. Head coach Jim Montgomery was fired in December for unprofessional conduct and Rick Bowness was named interim coach, going 20-13-5 in 38 regular-season games.
The Stars later lost six straight games before the NHL season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic in March and only won one of three round-robin seeding games -- in the shootout, no less -- before their Stanley Cup playoffs run began. Pavelski, 35, scored just 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) in 67 regular-season games.
But he, and the Stars, flipped a switch once they started playing elimination games in the Edmonton bubble. Dallas beat the Calgary Flames in six games, then the Colorado Avalanche in seven and the top-seeded, Pete DeBoer-led Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Western Conference final to advance to the Cup Final. Pavelski scored 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in those three series, but he knows the Stars' pursuit of a Stanley Cup only gets more difficult in the Final.
“This is my 14th year, and I’ve been on some really, really good teams in San Jose,” Pavelski said. “And we played in four conference finals there but only went to the [Cup Final] once. You understand it’s not an easy place to get to. But I think this group now has an understanding, which I think we’re going to talk about. There’s more left on the table that we have to go get.’’
When he left the Sharks, Pavelski wanted a chance to win the championship that eluded him for over a decade in San Jose. He can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that he made his choice in free agency with plenty of foresight.
Pavelski surely couldn't have seen everything coming, given all that has happened on and off the ice over the last year and change. But now, the Stars have a chance to reward his intuition.