Stars & Pavelski See Their Stanley Cup Window Closing

In his first season with the Dallas Stars in 2019-20, Joe Pavelski was a veteran presence who helped guide the team to become Western Conference champions. The lifelong San Jose Sharks forward’s slow start was not indicative of how he would finish the campaign, with 13 playoff goals, one less than he managed in the 67-game regular season, to lead the Stars.

The soon-to-be 37-year-old carried that momentum into his second season in Dallas while battling a busy schedule and increased workload due to injuries to Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, two of the team’s top-six forwards. Now that the season has come to an unfortunately early end, we can appreciate Pavelski’s mammoth effort this season and speculate about what might happen between him and the team, whose futures are inextricably intertwined. 

Doing His Part

Pavelski is the first player in a decade to lead the Stars in scoring other than Jamie Benn or Tyler Seguin. The last player to do it was Loui Eriksson in 2011-12 when Benn finished one spot behind him. Pavelski provided life support to a team that desperately struggled to score without two of their top four point-producers from the season before. He didn’t miss a single game despite the Stars’ absurd schedule – that didn’t include two nights off during the final 40 games – while averaging 19 minutes of ice time per game, a testament to his durability.

Not only did Pavelski lead the team in points, but he also led the pack with 25 goals, eight more than the nearest scorer Jason Robertson, and had a team-best plus-22 rating. He also led the team with four game-winning goals and was second in the league with 13 power-play goals, which catapulted Dallas’s power play to the top five in the NHL this season. Pavelski was on the ice for exactly half of the goals scored by the team in 2020-21, an amazing stat for a 5-foot-11 winger in his late thirties.

Joe Pavelski Dallas Stars
Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If we rewind the clock a bit to include last season’s playoffs, Pavelski has a remarkable 38 goals and 70 points in his last 79 games, starting with a hat-trick in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Calgary Flames. Over that span, he is the Stars’ most productive offensive player despite that he is never the quickest player on the ice. Instead, Pavelski relies on his high hockey IQ and hand-eye coordination and does it better than just about anyone in the league.

While he is rightfully known as an offensive weapon, he demonstrated a well-rounded game this season, playing himself into the Selke Trophy conversation, awarded annually “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.” Although the Stars failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pavelski’s play this season gave them a fighting chance until the very end. 

The Shrinking Stanley Cup Window

The Plover, Wisconsin native has been an excellent free-agent pickup for a Stars team whose defense-first game plan made it difficult to score. With a full roster and Pavelski on top of his game, the team surprised everyone with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games. With a healthy Seguin and Radulov, the Stars are poised to make another run at the Cup in 2021-22, which might be their final chance for their aging core who are on expiring contracts.

History suggests that Pavelski’s offensive production cannot continue at this rate. He finished 24th in the league in points this season, and to find a player older than him, you have to drop to Jason Spezza (37) at 154th. He also outpaced Patrice Bergeron and Alex Ovechkin in points, and the three of them were the only players 35 or older to finish in the top 134 in points. By the beginning of next season, Pavelski will be 37 and in the final year of his three-year, $21 million contract. In other words, it will most likely be his last chance to get his name on the Cup. 

Pavelski is not the only player in the back nine of his career. Goaltender Ben Bishop and Radulov (Pavelski’s linemate) are also both 34 years old, and Radulov only has one year left on his deal. On top of that, the Stars are going to need to allocate more of their budget to retain younger players like John Klingberg, Jamie Oleksiak, and Miro Heiskanen. Management will need to do cap gymnastics if they want to lock up all three players for the long haul. 

The Stars are also looking at the potential departure of two-thirds of their checking line; Andrew Cogliano and Blake Comeau will become free agents this summer. There’s speculation that Anton Khudobin has played his last game in Dallas. Needless to say it will be hard to keep the 2020 Western Conference champions together for much longer.

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Not winning the Cup this season has likely cost the Stars a few players. Not all of Heiskanen, Oleksiak, Klingberg, Comeau, and Cogliano will be back next season. Luckily, the emergence of Jason Robertson gives the team an affordable new tool for the future. However, after next season, Pavelski and Radulov’s contracts will expire, which will likely result in a more dramatic roster makeover. At the core of the money crunch are the Stars’ two franchise forwards.

Benn and Seguin each take up about $10 million in cap space, which doesn’t hurt the team much now, but it will in the future. They will continue to carry $9.85 million and $9.5 million cap hits, respectively, until they are each 35 years old, in 2025 for Benn and 2027 for Seguin. Furthermore, Pavelski and Radulov’s deals are not cheap. They carry a combined $13.25 million cap hit into next season. Add them to the young players mentioned earlier, and we can see why general managers make the big bucks.

That’s not to say the Stars will fall out of contention when Pavelski and Radulov’s contracts are up, but championship teams usually strike a healthy balance of young – and cheaper – talent with veteran leaders who take up most of the cap space. As they stand now, the Stars have some semblance of that balance, which is why they must take advantage of it.

A Shared Destiny

Pavelski’s career and the Stars’ championship window are inextricably linked. He was the missing piece that brought the team to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season, but as his body and contract wear down, so do the Stars’ hopes of winning. 

Ultimately, Pavelski signed with the Stars to hoist the Cup for the first time in his career, and next season might be his last rodeo. Perhaps the third time will be the charm for Pavelski, who lost in the Final in 2016 and 2020. With that in mind, expect an unparalleled level of desperation from players like Benn, Seguin, and Pavelski next season as they embark on their quest to bring the Stanley Cup to Dallas for the first time since 1999.

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