By Lindsay Kramer | NHL.com correspondent
When the Worcester Sharks went on a team outing last week, they quickly discovered there was a ringer in their midst.
The Sharks decided to spend some quality time together at, of all places, a gun range. Much like he’s been at almost everything else this season, rookie center Joe Pavelski
was the best at that, too. Which only figures, since Pavelski grew up in Plover, Wisc., which is cut in half by the Wisconsin River. To this day, much of his free time is spent out in nature, hunting and fishing.
“It was actually awesome,’’ Pavelski said of the shooting-range exercise. “Everyone got into it. Every time you have these big guns going off next to you, it’s pretty intense. We had a few shooting contests, with only a couple of guys. I usually took first."
And so, Worcester now knows how the rest of the AHL has been feeling since the start of the season when opponents look at Pavelski and ask, ‘Who is this guy?’’
The short answer: a former seventh-round pick with a razor attitude who proved himself a clutch player at the premier college hockey program in North America and now has put his new league in the cross-hairs.
Pavelski, 22, is coming off an October in which he was named the AHL’s rookie of the month and he paces all rookies with 15 points.
“When you make the jump to the next level, you hope you’re ready. I felt like I could handle my own,’’ Pavelski understated.
“He’s the real deal,’’ summed up Sharks coach Roy Sommer. “He’s got great vision, a good hockey sense. You could talk to anyone on our team, they’d love to play with him. He’s a special type of player who doesn’t come along too often.’’
NHL teams thought he was more like a dime a dozen in the 2003 draft. A total of 204 players were snatched before him until San Jose looked his way. Pavelski took it in stride. By his own admission he was an average skater, and his size -- now 5-11, 195 -- doesn’t cause any jaws to hit the ground.
“Until you’re the best, you always have something to prove,’’ he said. “And when you’re the best, you have to stay on top.’’
Ah, now we’re getting into Pavelski’s wheelhouse. Two seasons ago, he skated into college hockey’s cauldron and led Wisconsin in scoring as a freshman with 45 points, becoming the first rookie since Dany Heatley (1999-00) to pace the Badgers. Last season, he led the NCAA champ Badgers in assists (33), points (56), game-winning goals (six), multi-point games (15), power-play goals (11), and power play points (27).
“The last few years, I’ve been that (go-to) guy,’’ he said. “The more you play in (big games), the better you are going to get. Playing in those big-time moments, you take so much away and put it in your back pocket. Being on a winning team, knowing what it takes to win, knowing nothing will come easy.’’
His early numbers aside, Pavelski knows that cliché increases exponentially in the pros. He has to get faster. And stronger. Sommer loves the way he goes 100 mph each shift, but the coach also has to monitor his ice time, especially on the three-in-three weekends.
Sommer appreciates the way he takes the correct angles to the puck. Then there’s his vision and anticipation. And that game savvy that usually comes with veterans of a couple seasons or more. Sharks winger Mathieu Darche said Pavelski is the best center he’s ever played with.
“I haven’t seen a rookie that composed and playing like a veteran,’’ Darche said. “He won’t just wait for the puck – he’ll go in the corners and go get it. Don’t expect to see him in the AHL too long.’’
So Pavelski’s sneak-up-on ‘em days should be over, right?
We’ll see. The Sharks’ next team bonding session involves an afternoon of paintball. Hmmm. An activity that mixes shooting, quickness, guile and anticipation. Gee, who might have the edge there?
“Hopefully, he’s on my team,’’ Sommer said.
“Ah, I don’t know about (being the favorite),’’ Pavelski said. “I’ve only been paintballing a couple of times. I’m still a rookie at that.’’
He overlooks that the same can also be said of his current AHL challenge. And that seems to be working out quite well so far indeed.