With 38 goals during the regular season and a league-leading 14 in the playoffs, Joe Pavelski was one of the biggest contributors to the San Jose Sharks’ Stanley Cup Final run in 2016.
It also helped him to solidify his spot as one of the best goal scorers going in the league right now.
It was the third consecutive season Pavelski scored at least 37 goals, and since the start of the 2013-14 season he has been the second-best goal scorer in the entire league behind only Alex Ovechkin. The thing that stands out the most about Pavelski’s climb to the top of the league is that he has done it an age and at a point in his career when most players are starting to see their production slow down. Not increase.
If you look at historical trends throughout NHL history, the peak level of production for scorers is usually between the ages of 23 and 26. It is especially true when you look at the top goal scorers, both past and present.
Here is a quick look at the NHL’s top-40 goal scorers since the start of the 2000-01 season and their average goals by age, compared to what Pavelski has done in his career to this point.
If you look at only the top-40 goal-scorers over the aforementioned three-year stretch (the one where Pavelski is No. 2 in the entire league) he is one of only nine players on that list (and one of only two in the top-15) that was over the age of 30 in any of those seasons. The average age of the players on that list at the end of last season: 26.8. The players scoring the most goals are, for the most part, young.
At the conclusion of the 2016 postseason Pavelski was a month away from turning 32.
Unless it is Alex Ovechkin — a player that is probably one of the two or three best goal scorers to ever play in the NHL — even the absolute best scorers don’t consistently score goals at Pavelski’s current rate at this point in their career. Or post the best goal scoring numbers of their career.
Before this current stretch started he was always a productive player that you could comfortably pencil in to score 25 goals every year, with a 30-goal season randomly thrown in.
It wasn’t until the 2013-14 season when he scored a career-high 41 goals that his production really started to take off. At the time of that breakout season it was easy to assume that, given his age and prior production, it was just a short-term spike boosted by a significant jump in shooting percentage and that his production would quickly regress the next season (I thought that. And I was wrong. Very wrong).
Instead, he just keeps scoring goals. A lot of them. More than any other player in the league not named Ovechkin.
A lot of the factors that can contribute to scoring, or a sudden change in scoring, have mostly remained the same for Pavelski, specifically when it comes to his ice-time and most of his usage. He has always played around 20 minutes per game (and still is) and has consistently been one of their top forwards on a power play unit that has been one of the best in the league on a yearly basis.
His power play scoring has spiked in recent years, scoring 47 power play goals over the three seasons. In the first seven years of his career he scored only 48 on the power play.
From a goal scoring perspective, a lot of his improvement has been percentage based. His shooting percentage has spiked over the past three years while his overall shot volume is down from where it was earlier in his career (as should be expected because, again, he is 32 years old). Normally that would be a pretty big red flag and point to a player that is going through a run of good luck that probably isn’t going to last.
But at this point can you really conclude that Pavelski has just been “lucky” for three straight seasons?
One season? Sure. It happens. Two? Certainly possible. But three? That would be one heck of a run of good shooting luck.
The likely and most obvious answer to all of this is that the Sharks did make one big change that has probably helped boost Pavelski’s scoring. It has been their decision to team him up with Joe Thornton and form one of the best and most productive top-line duos in the NHL.
Since the start of the 2013-14 season more than 70 percent of Pavelski’s 5-on-5 ice time has come on the same line as Thornton. Over the past two years that number is more than 82 percent, while this past season it was close to 90 percent.
Between 2007 and 2012 only 25 percent of his ice-time came on a line with Thornton.
Linemates matter and can make a significant impact when it comes to production, and that is especially true when somebody as talented as Pavelski gets the opportunity to play alongside one of the best playmaking centers of all-time.
The impact Thornton has had on Pavelski — like many other forwards before him — is easy to spot.
Pavelski has averaged more than 1.24 goals per 60 minutes when playing alongside Thornton since the start of the 2007 season. Without Thornton on the ice with him that goal rate drops all the way down to 0.74. Still a very good number, but not anything that would have him among the NHL’s elite goal scorers.
This isn’t meant to take away from what Pavelski has done to reach his current level of production. He is, and always has been, a fantastic player that is a top-line scorer in the NHL, and that was true with or without Thornton on his line. It just helps explain how his career has followed a rather unconventional path when it comes to his scoring and when he has played his best hockey.
(Data via Hockey Analysis and Hockey-Reference)