When Max Pacioretty was voted as the 29th captain of the Montreal Canadiens by his teammates in September, little did he know that the future had nothing but Game of Thrones-esque events planned for him. The stoic forward was tasked with leading his team to the promised land. Things went well at first, but the rest, as they say, is history; as in the worst collapse in the franchise's existence.
As the losses mounted, the narratives started to fly. Was he the best choice for captain? Should the Habs consider trading him? Why is he no longer scoring goals?
The answers to those questions are: Yes. He was chosen by his teammates. No one outside the locker room has the right information to criticize the choice made by the players. Pacioretty didn't change overnight, and seeing as the perceived leadership issues arose only as the Habs started to fail, and not during their historic start, it seems to me like those narratives were put in place to stoke the fire, rather than identify a real issue;
No. They should not trade him. His production combined with his ridiculously low salary hit of $4.5 M make him invaluable to the Habs;
And finally, the last question is a little more complicated, and we'll touch upon that later on in his review.
First off, let's take a look at how Pacioretty played this season. He finished first in Habs scoring, and by a rather large margin. His 64 points were more than enough to secure the team lead, eight points ahead of Alex Galchenyuk.
He finished with 30 goals, which again led the team. That total was good for sixth among all left wingers in the NHL, and 19th among all skaters. His 64 points (26th) were three off his career high, and his 34 assists (60th) established a new single-season record in his career.
He maintained a sparkling of 55.5% Corsi-for percentage, which ranked him 23rd among all NHL forwards with 500 minutes played this season. Essentially, the rumours of his decline have been greatly exaggerated.
As we all know, results like goals are great, but when performing an autopsy you need to delve a little deeper, and once you compare his 2015-16 season with the rest of the career, it becomes abundantly clear that despite the lower goal totals, Pacioretty still had a great year.
(stats via war-on-ice.com, 5 vs 5 only, CF% = Corsi For %, Psh% = personal shooting %, SF% = shots for %, SCF%= scoring chances for, HSCF% = high-danger scoring chances for %)
He only saw a drop in two areas: personal shooting percentage and goals per 60 minutes. His all-situation shot totals held steady, as well, launching 303 shots compared to 302 in 2014-15, albeit in two additional games.
So what went wrong?
First off, we have to keep in mind that he did not enjoy much of a training camp after a serious leg injury in the off-season. Obviously this can't be used to explain why his shooting percentage took such a dip, but it is one of the reasons why his season could be perceived as mediocre by some.
One of the theories is that Pacioretty is shooting further away from the target than usual, and, to be perfectly honest, I don't buy that one bit. First off, data showed us that he was actually shooting from closer to the net and creating more scoring chances than his career average.
If he was in fact shooting closer, and shooting more often from closer to the net, shouldn't his goal totals see an uptick? In theory, yes. In practice, the NHL is a different animal. If he maintained his regular shooting percentage he would have scored an additional six goals, nearing his previous season total.
Pacioretty's best weapon is his blistering wrist shot, and to use his lightning-quick release he needs space rather than proximity to the net. I have a sneaking suspicion that opposing teams have clued in to this process, seeing as how he spent the bulk of the season in heavy defensive coverage. When putting together a game plan to beat the Habs this year, you only needed to circle a few players each game, and Pacioretty was definitely one of them.
For the vast majority of the season, he was playing alongside Tomas Plekanec, and as you can see the numbers were fantastic from a defensive standpoint, though they created fewer shots while on the ice compared to when Pacioretty was playing with Galchenyuk.
What really hurt Pacioretty's production was when he was anchored by David Desharnais and Dale Weise for almost 20% of the year. Pacioretty produced more goals alongside either of Plekanec and Galchenyuk, more shots, more scoring chances, fewer goals against, fewer shots against, and fewer scoring chances against. The Pacioretty-Desharnais-Weise trio created two goals, and allowed four.
When your best goal-scorer isn't scoring at his regular pace, it doesn't make much sense to place him on a line that's historically produced unsustainable numbers. I understand why Michel Therrien would go back to his favourite combination, but it really lacked foresight on the coach's part. For what it's worth, the Habs only managed to win three games in regulation out of the 15 in which Therrien used that desperation line.
The flip side of the Desharnais anchor factor was that Pacioretty was finally used alongside Galchenyuk on the first line. Apparently the reason why Galchenyuk and Pacioretty hadn't be used more often this year was due to their "poor" results during their first "audition."
Therrien claimed the pair did not create a single scoring chance in those 20 minutes through two games, and followed it up by insisting they did not have any chemistry.
Interestingly, once you take a look at those two games, which clearly weren't long enough for a legitimate audition, the truth becomes a bit clearer.
In the first game, which took place on December 9 versus the Boston Bruins, Pacioretty played with Galchenyuk and Sven Andrighetto. Despite being matched up versus the best shutdown forward in the league in Patrice Bergeron, and defensive juggernaut Zdeno Chara, the line still managed to create offensive opportunities. Pacioretty led the team that night with three individual scoring chances. While it's true the line ended up with a less than ideal 48% shot-attempts-for percentage, they did so while facing incredibly tough competition, not to mention while trying to find chemistry as a new unit.
In the second game on December 10, the Habs mixed up the lines a little, seeing as it was the second night of a back-to-back. Weise took over Andrighetto's role on the first line, and he did not contribute any chances, however Galchenyuk created two despite being mostly covered by Pavel Datsyuk, another defensive wizard.
The two players were put in an incredibly tough situation, and while they failed to create an abundance of offence, to say that they created no chances was false. They were thrown to the wolves as they played against some of the best defensive specialists in the league, and despite a low amount of ice time and different right wingers, they looked decent. It probably wasn't enough to warrant keeping the two together for the rest of the season, however it was obviously not enough to state that the two had no chemistry together. For a team that lacked offence, especially throughout the middle of the year, leaning on a tiny sample size that ignored context was just one of the many errors the Habs committed this season.
The good news? It seems as if that combination is here to stay. At this point Therrien has exhausted all possible alternatives, and it was clear from their performance down the stretch that the two talented forwards do have chemistry, and can create goals.
It's clear that at this point in his career, Pacioretty needs to be used alongside legitimate first-line centers, as opposed to dragging around anchors on his line. Yes, he can still produce with lower-quality teammates, however the Habs are mitigating their offensive production by doing so, rather than spreading the wealth.
By combining Galchenyuk and Pacioretty, the Habs created a line that's offensively dynamic, incredibly creative, and more importantly they're hard to defend against. You can't put Pacioretty in double coverage without exposing your goaltender to Galchenyuk's one-timer, and vice versa.
For too long the Habs have made defending easy on opposing teams, and this line has the potential to throw a wrench in what is usually a very easy game-planning session before facing the Habs.