Paul Bereswill - Getty Images
For 4 years Habs fans have been watching the progress of Max Pacioretty. Now we're treated to watching one of the best left wingers in the game.
Two years ago a lot of people thought Max Pacioretty was a wasted 1st round pick. 15 pro goals in 146 games between the AHL and NHL (including playoffs) had pundits saying the Montreal Canadiens made a grievous mistake in drafting him over Quebecois homeboy David Perron. Pacioretty had a tendency to skate with his head down, which resulted in a few injuries and a lot bad looking hits on the young American. Some went so far as to say that the top end for Pacioretty was that of a Mike McPhee 3rd line grinder.
October of 2010 wasn't too much different than his career thus far. Pacioretty didn't make the Canadiens out of training camp, and in 8 AHL games with the Hamilton Bulldogs he peppered goaltenders with 36 shots (4.5 per game) but only scored one goal. More of the same, or so we thought.
In November of 2010 the Bulldogs and Pacioretty played 13 games. Pacioretty scored 10 times and added 7 assists to go with it. Max played 6 more games in the AHL in December, scoring 6 more times and failing to score in just one game. Thus ended the AHL career of Max Pacioretty.
Called up to the big club, Pacioretty wasted little time establishing that his play wasn't limited to the AHL with a goal and assist in his 2nd game of the year against the hated Boston Bruins getting the first star of the game.
From there Pacioretty continued to score at a 31 goal per 82 games pace in a sheltered, high offensive zone start role with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. He continued to terrorize the Bruins with 3 more goals in the next two games against them, including this overtime winner in a stunning comeback.
Unfortunately a man who is big in stature only, couldn't take a little shove after his team blew the game, and became unhinged. We all know what happened a few games later after repeated attempts to injure Pacioretty with two hand slashes, hits from behind and other sideshow antics. Zdeno Chara broke Max Pacioretty's neck in an illegal play that went unpunished. I won't be linking that video because we've all seen it enough.
The hit ended Pacioretty's breakout season. The hit made Pacioretty a household name among hockey fans overnight. The hit threatened to define Max Pacioretty's career as a hockey player, his life, his legacy.
Pacioretty came back the next season better than ever. Transitioning from a sheltered role into more of a secondary tough minutes role with more frequent starts in his own zone, Pacioretty went from promising, to the Canadiens best forward. The team had rotten luck on the powerplay, Max included, so he scored the 4th most goals at even strength in the entire NHL with 29.
It's not like Pacioretty rode the percentages either, he put up elite possession numbers and shot a perfectly sustainable 11.54%. Eric T from NHL Numbers and Broadsteet Hockey attempted to see how much an individual player could affect a team's possession metrics, and Pacioretty came out as a hell of a valuable player. Eric has since said that small samples inflated some numbers a bit, but regardless he agreed that Pacioretty has developed into a beast of a player.
Quite simply, the lanky kid from Connecticut and Masterton Trophy winner has become one of the NHL's premier left wingers.
You'll not that I was one of two people on the panel to place Pacioretty in the 3rd place spot. My reasoning was simple enough, although you may not agree. I believe Alex Galchenyuk will be as good as Max, although maybe not better. But because Galchenyuk is a center, he has a higher impact on the game. This is why I rated him ahead of Pacioretty, although it was by the thinnest possible margin.
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STRENGTHS: Speed, power, release. Pacioretty is a prototypical power forward. Dominating possession from the left side, when he comes barreling down the wing at top speed, defenders beware. Pacioretty isn't a dangler, but the speed of his release and the heaviness of his shot can beat goaltenders from way out, an example of which you can see in the video linked above. An explosive skater, Pacioretty routinely gets into a scoring position just by being faster than everyone else on the ice. As positive side effect of his early career scoring struggles are that he was used as a grinding, shutdown forward, and he was the go to defensive guy on his line last season. He has great instincts for where to be on the ice. Pacioretty isn't a fighter, he's a freight train.
WEAKNESSES: At times last year, Pacioretty was a little bit more timid that we're used to seeing him. This could be partly because of his injury the previous season, and it could also be due to his suspension for his hit on Kris Letang and he was nervous about physically imposing himself. Either way, playing with Erik Cole again should motivate him to get back to where he was in the hitting and forechecking game. Another criticism could be that he could drive the net more often like Cole does, but playing with Cole and David Desharnais last season, often times he had to be a little bit conservative to account for their offensive risk taking.
PROJECTION: It seems to me that Max can push 40 goals. I don't think he'll get there next year, but I think it's possible. He still hasn't had an outlier season as far as shooting percentage is concerned, and most good NHL players have one or two. Signed to an absurdly cap friendly extension by Marc Bergevin this summer, Pacioretty should be the Habs go to goal scorer for the next 7+ seasons.
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