Habs Top 25 under 25: #3 Max Pacioretty

For years the Habs faithful have demanded the team find and develop a good power forward, and in Pacioretty they may have finally found their man.

Expectations for Pacioretty were not exactly high last summer. He followed up a very good 18 year old year in Michigan with two years split between AHL and NHL were he wasn't particular outstanding in either. In particular, his inability to score goals at the professional level led many to doubt his ability to grow beyond a checking role. When we made these rankings last year he was 7th overall and the 5th forward by the rankings. Our assessment wasn't all that glowing either saying:

"Perhaps it's a matter of him needing some catching up, but his offensive game has yet to translate at the professional level.  Still, there is quite a lot to like about his game.  He didn't hurt the team at all last year during his 52 games, all from the start of the season, but he wasn't progressing, either.  His solid skating, strong physical play, and unselfish game gave him passing grades as a third line player.  Unfortunately, the Habs are expecting more from him than that.  

This inability to translate his offensive game as a professional (he also only has 8 goals in 55 career AHL games) has brought up some interesting questions.  Topham at Lions in Winter, who took part in this project, wonders if Pacioretty might be worth converting into a defender, given his strong skating ability, good passing, and strong understanding of the defensive game.  It's a bit of a left field proposition, but we have seen players like Craig Rivet and Andrei Markov move from forward to defense with great success, so there is precedent.  However, doing so would be giving up on one of the Habs more promising forward prospects, and at this point seems unnecessary."

Pacioretty immediately started proving people wrong this year with a flat out dominant performance in the AHL Scoring 17 goals and 32 points in 27 games in Hamilton during which time it was possible he was the best player in the entire league. This was more than enough to earn him a call up to Montreal in order to fill the team's biggest hole on the 2nd line LW.

Pacioretty's breakout year continued in the NHL. Its not much of a stretch to suggest he was the second best forward on the team behind Plekanec during his time in the NHL. His 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games prorate out to 31 goals and 53 points over a full season. His success wasn't just a result of a lucky shooting streak either, converting on a fairly typical 12.5% of his shots and the victim of a fairly low 7.01% team shooting rate at even strength. If anything this indicates that he was an even better offensive producer than his pro-rated stats would suggest.

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This is reflected by his advanced statistics, where he was an astounding +23.1 on corsi which led the entire league among players with more than 30 games. This means that the Canadiens were flat out dominating territoriality when he was on the ice in a manner similar to how Team Canada would dominate Team Switzerland.  This is reflected by his scoring chance data which was an impressive 57%, which is very strong but not as great as his corsi rating (playing with the relatively shot happy Gomez and Gionta probably had something to do with this). These weren't soft minutes against goons and grinders he was dominating either, playing on average 2nd line competition on Gomez's line.

While he got help from a relatively favorable 56% offensive zone start ratio, this was an outstanding performance from a 21 year old that has never played a full season in the NHL. The only reason Pacioretty was not a strong plus player at even strength was he had the misfortune of playing in front of .898 save percentage goaltending.

He also was responsible for completely revitalizing the second line; with Gomez scoring 11 of his 20 ES points despite spending only about 28% of his even strength ice time with him. This also resulted in a strong 55% scoring chance ratio together in comparison to Gomez's normal 52%.

If the even strength play wasn't enough, he also brought a very useful dimension to the power play, which enjoyed its greatest success with him on the ice. By rate he was the best power play goal scorer at 4.05 per 60 minutes, had the second best team goals for rate while on ice ( 8.83 per 60) and the best power play shot generation with a corsi rating of 95.08 among Montreal forwards. His efforts were rewarded with a well earned 7 power play goals and 8 power play points in his 37 games.

And if all that isn't enough, he was also the best Hab at drawing penalties, drawing 1.7 for every 60 minutes of ES time while taking 1.1 for a team leading +.6 penalty differential rate.

That he has begun to play so well in the pros is less surprising than first glance. He was a very strong player at both the USHL and NCAA level and his first professional season in the AHL was very strong for a 19 year old, with an impressive 0.78 points per game average (Tomas Plekanec had 0.57 at his age while Andrei Kostitsyn wasn't even close). On a per year basis, only his 2nd pro year can really be classified as a disappointment. That said, no Habs forward in recent history has come close to the numbers he put up in both the AHL or NHL at 21 years, the closest being Kostitsyn's 3rd AHL season where he averaged 1.04 points per game to Pacioretty's 1.19. 

Compared to his draft year Pacioretty's year stacks up quite favourably, with only such talents as Patrick Kane, Jamie Benn and Logan Couture having demonstrably better ones among forwards, although David Perron probably also would have done well if he was uninjured. One could argue that if the draft was run again he'd stand a good chance of going top 10 overall.

At this point it's certainly possible to entertain the notion that he is the best forward the Canadiens' system has developed since Plekanec and there is the possibility that he'll end up better than Plekanec, Ribeiro or Koivu.

It is truly unfortunate that such a fantastic year was cut short in such a terrible fashion. While I won't get into the controversial Chara hit here, I will note that the Habs sorely missed his talents afterwards, especially in the playoffs. He had proved to be a special player that exactly fit the team's needs and the team suffered by his absence.

Strengths
Pacioretty has always been a very fast skater but this season managed to be just as fast or faster with added weight. His passing game has always been good, before this season he was able to put up fairly respectable numbers in the AHL on the back of his assists alone. He has transitioned from a player that so frequently got manhandled by going to the tough areas of the ice to a tough, physically strong player that can earn time and space in front of the opponent's net.

While his shot isn't is best tool, he has become a competent shooter for a top six forward in the NHL, capable of scoring from far out with a one-timer or on the rush as well as close to the net. He has developed into an effective powerplay player by becoming adept at playing in front of and to the goalie's left hand side of the net, using a combination of strength and stick skill to score in close. He is also a fairly good defensive player for a scorer his age.

Weaknesses
He perhaps became too reckless in his play last season and may need to learn to better defend himself. Its yet to be seen whether he can be the same player after his dominant stretch last season considering the major injury he suffered. He has also only been an exceptional player for a single season and there is the risk that he will not be able to replicate or improve on it.

Future Analysis
His future has been somewhat clouded by the specter of his injury. On the plus side he appears to have been fortunate in avoiding serious concussion symptoms and is reported to be completely recovered. It should be noted that Richard Zednik had his best offensive seasons after he received a similar injury courtesy of Kyle McLaren.

Assuming no permanent damage, on the basis of last season it is easy to project Pacioretty to become a star winger that flirts with 30 goals and 60 points per season. Certainly he can be safely projected as a solid top six winger and power play net presence.

Olivier of En Attendant les Nordiques has made the case that he could hit 40 goals on a particularly good year later in his career and on the basis of his underlying numbers and skill level I wouldn't rule that out either.

#4: Lars Eller #3: Max Pacioretty #2 P.K. Subban
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