Joe Pavelski is having one of the best seasons of his 15-year NHL career. Though the Dallas Stars are off to a slower-than-expected start after making it to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, Pavelski is carrying the load -- especially as the team weathers early injury-related absences of Tyler Seguin, Ben Bishop and Alexander Radulov. Through 28 games, Pavelski has scored 14 goals -- six more than any other teammate -- and is averaging a point per game, his best pace ever and double his regular-season rate from 2019-20.
Off the ice, Pavelski has been positioning himself for even more success: heading a sports media company.
In 2017, Pavelski launched Kompany 39, a digital platform that helps athletes share their stories, grow their brands and better connect with fans. Last week, the company rebranded as TorchPro -- fueled by a round of funding -- and also announced the purchase of the Morning Blitz, a daily sports newsletter. TorchPro has 12 full-time employees, a pool of 12-14 interns, and eight "founding athletes," including Charlie McAvoy, Riley Sheahan and Mike Green. Kacey Bellamy, a stalwart defenseman on the U.S. women's national team, was the first athlete to sign on.
The website's initial offerings include several produced videos: Pavelski explaining his path to becoming a pro, McAvoy dishing on his road-trip essentials, Sheahan talking about his passion for guitar, and Bellamy sharing her workouts.
"Our goal is to get this thing going and grow it as big as we can," Pavelski said. "As we talk to players, there's excitement for it. They can take control of their brand, and grow it in an authentic way. The culture has changed where people feel more comfortable sharing their stories, and we think we have a chance to create something really meaningful."
TorchPro is a story of a professional athlete starting to think about what his life will look like after retiring. It's also a story about hockey culture, and a veteran player who wants to help it adapt and leave it better for the next generation. At its heart, TorchPro is a buddy story, beginning with a friendship forged at the rink.
Pavelski met Matt Fornataro in 2002, in Iowa, as teammates on the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL. "We were just two teenagers chasing dreams," Fornataro said. They won a championship in 2004, and went on their separate paths. Fornataro played at the University of New Hampshire, then carved a 10-year pro career, mostly in the AHL, and a little in Europe. Pavelski went to Wisconsin, then made it big time, earning the nickname "Captain America" while playing for the San Jose Sharks and Team USA in two Olympics. They remained friends throughout.
When Fornataro retired in 2016, he began helping Pavelski run his social media accounts. He also helped with summer camps in Wisconsin. Pavelski loved the opportunity to share knowledge with young hockey players. "Growing up, there was never social media to see what other guys were doing, other drills, see what they're like, you just watched the games," Pavelski said. "One of my favorite players was Brett Hull. Looking back, it would have been so cool to get closer to those guys, see if you're doing something right, try to emulate them, or really just feel closer."
Pavelski wondered, how could they take what he was teaching to 100-plus kids in person, and share it with the masses?
They formed Kompany 39, thanks to an initial investment from Pavelski.
"There's great people and great stories in the game of hockey, and they haven't been shared in the way we think they should be," Fornataro said. "The humble gene in a lot of ways has held the game back. Hockey is a humble game, it's all about 'team, team, team.' There's sometimes a breakdown, though, in the sense that a player sharing their personality or outside interest somehow made them a bad person, or a 'me, me, me' person, and that's not the case."
Pavelski, 36, is recruiting younger players in the league. His pitch: "If you could add a little piece [of your life] every year over the next 10, 15 years, imagine how cool it would be for a kid coming up, to really experience your journey?"
McAvoy, 23, the No. 1 defenseman on the Boston Bruins, was excited to be part of it.
"We had a call last week with a bunch of guys talking about it, and we shared a lot of the same feelings about how the people who came before us, and everyone in hockey, the culture is a little reluctant to step outside of that team setting and have a brand, because nobody really feels comfortable saying, 'hey, check me out,'" McAvoy said. "The humble hockey player -- which you see with pretty much every guy on every team -- is the mold that everyone falls into. I think it's great; you meet some of the nicest people, some real gentlemen in the game of hockey. But I also think there are people who are interested in our stories, who are interested in seeing athletes for more than just hockey players, and this allows for that."
Pavelski is under contract with the Stars through the 2021-22 season. Though he's not sure what life after hockey will look like for him, he's proud to be laying the foundations now.
"There's a lot of guys that just don't really start [thinking about it] until they're done, they have one or two years left in their career and they think, 'OK what should i do?'" Pavelski said. "That transition, from everything we know and from what I've seen, it's not easy for everybody. For me, it's not one foot in the door and one foot out the door, it's just learning as you go, establishing who you are as a person and what you like, and hopefully it does help when your playing days are over and you can fall into that next phase of your life."
As for why he's seen so much success on the ice this season? Pavelski has some theories.
"Last year was really interesting, in terms of the first time being away from San Jose," he said. "And I think some of the injuries I dealt with coming back, I didn't think they would affect me in certain ways. It was a lot of little things -- with the move, all new teammates, feeling comfortable. Part of my game, I believe, is reading off players, understanding tendencies. I think the game well, I think around the game, versus flying down the wing, beating guys one on one. But I definitely feel more comfortable around these guys, having a great time around them, and I've reestablished certain things of how I've wanted to play, I think it's all helped out."
The condensed schedule doesn't seem to be affecting him much -- in fact, he might be thriving because of it.
"I was talking to 'Jumbo' Joe Thornton the other day and I was like, 'we play four games a week for the next month!'" Pavelski said. "He's like, 'You know how it is, you me and a lot of these guys, we like to play games.' We like to practice, too, but once the games are rolling, it's fun. You play a game, you rest and recover the next day, and you get ready to play again. It's why we love this game: to compete, to perform. You show up every night, you might be a little tired, but by the time warmups come, there's a lot of excitement to just play."
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn't like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week
Emptying the notebook
1. The Boston Bruins are the latest team to hit a pause, with two games postponed this week after four players landed on the COVID protocol list. The team is hopeful to open its practice facilities on Wednesday.
The Bruins are in fourth place in the East Division, and based on GM Don Sweeney's midseason press availability, it sounds as if the team is interested in some offensive help to address the scoring issues (through 28 games, Boston has the fourth fewest 5-on-5 goals in the league). Though the Bruins could still be looking to add a defenseman ahead of the trade deadline, it's not as dire. That's largely because McAvoy has inherited the No. 1 job seamlessly, and other young blueliners have stepped into bigger roles. It's all the more impressive considering the blue line is battling some with injuries.
"I feel like going into the season, that was all anyone could talk about -- it was like you lose Z [Zdeno Chara], you lose Torey [Krug], like we're not going to be able to keep the puck out of our net," McAvoy says. "And you've just seen everyone step up by committee. I'm so proud to be a part of it. To see the guys we've brought into the fold, to see everyone really flourish, especially with the injuries we've had to battle on the back end. The other night Jack Ahcan plays his first NHL game, we're calling on everybody right now. It's just been a next-man-up type of mindset. Everyone is just coming in and doing their job.
"It's been part of the culture here -- regardless of who is in the lineup, we've always been deep, we've always felt like we have everything we need within to win. It's been so embodied this season."
2. I asked an NHL pro scout which available goalie he would be most excited about getting, if his team were in the market (they're not). He didn't hesitate: Jonathan Bernier. The 29-year-old has battled hard for the Detroit Red Wings, with a .918 save percentage for a not-very-good team. However, he was injured in Thursday's win over the Stars, and the team isn't sure of the severity. Goalie-hungry teams are monitoring the situation.
"I would just say it's one of those injuries that could heal quickly, or could take longer," coach Jeff Blashill said. "We're just not sure."
3. I'll have more on the Carolina Hurricanes in a story later this week, but first a positive development: goalie Petr Mrazek is back at practice, and his return is imminent. Mrazek, 29, had been sidelined since Jan. 30, and he underwent surgery on his right thumb. He recently had the pins removed, and once he's comfortable, he will return to the lineup.
Mrazek had only four starts this season, but he was outstanding, posting a .955 save percentage while allowing just three goals. Carolina soldiered on quite well without him -- thanks in part to the emergence of 25-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic -- but will be happy to welcome back their No. 1. The Canes have lost three straight for the first time this season, dropping them to third in the competitive Central Division. Carolina is still within three points of division-leader Tampa Bay, and has a comfortable 10-point lead over fourth place.
But injuries are starting to mount. Leading scorer Vincent Trocheck (upper body) has been sidelined since March 11 and first-liner Teuvo Teravainen (concussion) has been out since March 4.
"I think most teams can recover from short-term injuries, but when you have long-term injuries, that's tough," coach Rod Brind'Amour told me on Friday. "We've had a few now this year. With Petr out, somebody had to step up. Nedeljkovic did a really good job. We've been fortunate guys have been able to step up, because these are three really big shoes to fill."
Three stars of the week
Mika Zibanejad, C, New York Rangers
First, Zibanejad became the only player besides Islanders legend Bryan Trottier to record six points in a single period; he was the offensive star of New York's wild 9-0 blowout of Philly on Wednesday. (Trottier had been the sole holder of that record for 42 years). Then, he followed that performance by scoring the game winner against the Capitals with a terrific individual effort:
Mika Zibanejad shoves the defender off the puck to gain possession, scores to break the tie late in the third #NYR pic.twitter.com/zmyvr3vzNx— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) March 21, 2021
The 27-year-old, who slumped to begin the season, is definitely taking a turn. In his own words: "I've been feeling pretty good the last few weeks, l feel like myself again."
Philipp Grubauer, G, Colorado Avalanche
There is no goalie in the league right now as hot as Grubauer, who picked up three wins (including his league-leading fifth shoutout), posting a .985 save percentage along the way. He also scored an assist, because, well, why not? During Colorado's six-game winning streak, he has allowed only three goals on 136 shots, a .977 save percentage.
One of Grubauer's appearances this week came in relief of Hunter Miska (who allowed four goals on seven shots), reinforcing that Colorado is very much looking for a dependable backup, even beyond their deal to land Jonas Johansson.
Connor McDavid, C, Edmonton Oilers
Another week, another dominant performance from the Oilers captain (four goals, including two game winners and four assists) in four games. He's now the fastest player to reach 60 points since Mario Lemieux in 2002-03 (who also did it in 34 team games).
A good time to re-up this story I did a few years ago to remind you that despite outworldly efforts on the ice, McDavid is in fact human.
What we liked this week
1. It had been 716 days since Thomas Hickey last played in a regular-season NHL game. The 31-year-old defenseman had been sidelined as the Islanders needed lineup spots for their young blueliners. When the opportunity was there for Hickey, he was injured.
But on Saturday, everything aligned for Hickey to get back in an NHL game for the first time since May 3, 2019. He notched two assists in a 6-1 Islanders win over the Flyers, and called it "the best feeling I've had in a long time."
Hickey's journey hasn't been easy. He lost his older brother, Dan, to brain cancer a little over a year ago. Dan, who lived in Calgary, is survived by his wife and daughter, who is 2½. "We've had a really rough go," Hickey said on Saturday. "I've been thinking about my brother, always wanted to just do good things while he was battling and fighting, and to show him that you can play for him. I think that carries over, even though he's not with us, that's in the back of your mind. ... It's been a tough road, but I feel like it's worth it. It's worth that wait."
2. We're happy to see Devante Smith-Pelly back in North America, after signing a professional tryout contract with the Ontario Reign of the AHL. Smith-Pelly, 28, was a big part of the Capitals' 2018 Stanley Cup run. Smith-Pelly spent last season with the Kunlun Red Star of the KHL.
3. It's been a frustrating season for the Anaheim Ducks, and they're looking toward the future. The good news is that there are some bright spots among the young core about which fans should be excited. Jamie Drysdale (No. 6 pick of 2020 draft) and Trevor Zegras (No. 9 pick in 2019) both scored their first NHL goals in the same game, an overtime win against the Coyotes.
Trevor Zegras first NHL goal from Troy Terry pic.twitter.com/IVlz9hcfyN— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) March 19, 2021
What we didn't like this week
1. We never like to see a coach lose his job, but a divorce for the Sabres and Ralph Krueger became inevitable after Buffalo's tailspin (its losing streak is now at 13 games with a minus-33 goal differential).
The issues, of course, are not exclusive to coaching -- but the Sabres can't answer for why they've cycled through so many of them. Interim bench boss Don Granato is the Sabres' seventh coach this decade. "I mean, I can see why the decision was made," Rasmus Ristolainen, the eight-year veteran said. "It's business. I've been here. I've seen so many coaching changes, GM changes, but especially like most of the coaching changes we've had here, I feel like it's more about players. But you can't fire players, so then it's always the coach having to take the blame."
Owners Terry and Kim Pegula want to win, and hopefully this latest season of disappointment triggers some soul-searching. The Pegulas listened to league recommendations on hires during their first few years in the league, but when they didn't work out, they decided to go with people they knew (hence, why Kevyn Adams, the longtime Sabres employee, got the GM nod). But Adams needs help, and it appears his first order of business is hiring an assistant GM. As I wrote last week, the Sabres have serious challenges; their scouting department was ravaged by cuts during the pandemic. They have yet to fill a lot of those positions, and they plan to lean heavily on video scouting this draft cycle.
The Sabres could have $34.95 million in cap space this summer, according to Cap Friendly, with the contracts of Taylor Hall, Carter Hutton, Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour, Tobias Rieder, Riley Sheahan and Linus Ullmark all potentially coming off the books. The Sabres have tried throwing money at their problems in free agency in the past, and that hasn't worked. It's time for a total reboot.
2. The Philadelphia Flyers are struggling. They have been outscored by 13 goals over their past three games, which is their worst goal differential over a three-game span since November 2002. Of course, the 9-0 loss to the Rangers (and their replacement coaching staff) was an embarrassing clunker.
The uncomfortable thing to talk about in context of the Flyers season: They just haven't been the same team since a bout of COVID-19 hit the team and they were forced to go on pause in early February. Since then, they've been a bottom-five team in the NHL, going 7-8-1, allowing 3.94 goals per game -- second worst in the league (to Anaheim) -- in that span. Carter Hart hasn't been himself (and is now at a league-worst minus-17.61 goals saved above average, per Natural Stat Trick), but the defense in front of him has way too many breakdowns.
This week will be telling for GM Chuck Fletcher to assess whether his team can be buyers at this year's deadline, or would be better off standing pat, writing off this season as a developmental one. Don't forget: the Flyers were one of the most dominant teams in the second half of last season. From the 2020 All-Star break to the pause in March, Philly went 14-4-1 and led all teams averaging 3.89 goals per game. A similar turnaround is possible, and the playoffs are still very much within reach.
3. Timur Faizutdinov, the 19-year-old captain of Dynamo St. Petersburg, died last week in Russia after being hit in the head by a puck. The horrific accident sent shockwaves across the hockey community. It was nice to see Evgeni Malkin honor Faizutdinov with a decal on his helmet.
Evgeni Malkin is wearing a #77 sticker on his helmet in remembrance of Timur Faizutdinov, who tragically passed away after suffering a head injury in a recent hockey game. He was 19, and the captain of Dynamo St. Petersburg. Our hearts go out to Timur's family and teammates. pic.twitter.com/qIhSv1GXm5— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 16, 2021
Unfortunately Malkin -- who was just starting to find his stride this season -- is now listed as week-to-week with a lower-body injury.
Top games on tap this week
Note: All times Eastern.
Thursday, March 25: New York Rangers at Philadelphia Flyers 7 p.m. (ESPN+)
Uh, the last time these teams played, the Rangers won 9-0. The rematch is essential viewing.
Thursday, March 25: Vegas Golden Knights at Colorado Avalanche, 9 p.m.
The Avs are heating, riding a six-game winning streak, and they're eyeing Vegas' top spot in the West. This also could pit two of the most dominant goalies in the league right now, Grubauer and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Coinciding with Colorado's resurgence: Cale Makar is back.
Cale Makar is just so effective. pic.twitter.com/TLhfY5fCCr— NHL (@NHL) March 20, 2021
Saturday, March 27: Tampa Bay Lightning at Carolina Hurricanes 7 p.m. (ESPN+)
The Central Division is top-heavy, and maybe the most challenging in all of the NHL this season. The Canes have three more games against the Lightning (they are 2-3 so far), which could have a major impact on the standings.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tampa Bay's .767 point percentage is tied for the fourth-highest through 30 games by a defending Stanley Cup champ, and highest since the 1985-86 Oilers.
Social media post of the week
With goal No. 718 last week, Alex Ovechkin surpassed Phil Esposito for No. 6 on the NHL's all-time goal-scoring list, and with 720, he now trails Wayne Gretzky by just 174. The tradition of players congratulating other players for breaking their records will never grow old to me. (Gordie Howe followed Gretzky on the road when Gretzky was poised to break his record, and Gretzky has vowed to do the same for Ovechkin).
And now a message from the great Phil Esposito for Alex Ovechkin on taking over sixth place on the all-time goals list!#ALLCAPS | #Gr8 pic.twitter.com/8NydChJFE8— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 17, 2021