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Max Pacioretty just needs a little help from his friends

The captain’s offensive totals were down, but all signs point to a quick rebound with a few lineup tweaks.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Arizona Coyotes Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Max Pacioretty will be the first to tell you that his 2017-18 season was simply not up to standards. As the Montreal Canadiens tripped out of the gate and continued to stumble down the standings, the captain could muster only 17 goals and 37 points, posting the lowest offensive totals for any season of his career under Marc Bergevin’s stewardship.

Table courtesy Hockey Reference

The underlying metrics are not much better. While an argument could be made — looking at Pacioretty’s shooting percentage — that the left-winger was victimized by bad luck to some extent, his shot, rebound, and individual scoring-chance production all sagged in 2017-18.

Individual metrics for Max Pacioretty. Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick. iG: individual goals; iP: individual points; iS: individual shots; iSCF: individual scoring chances; iHDCF: individual high-danger scoring chances; iReb: individual rebounds created; /60: per 60 min TOI.

But Pacioretty is not finished as an elite scorer in the NHL quite yet. The winger position is traditionally more reliant on teammates than the centre position — Maurice Richard had his Elmer Lach, Jari Kurri his Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull his Adam Oates, and Alex Ovechkin his Nicklas Backstrom.

With this in mind, the Canadiens have been seeking a partner for Pacioretty ever since the decline and fall of David Desharnais. The off-season acquisition of Jonathan Drouin was their solution, and pundits and fans alike salivated at the prospect of Drouin’s vision and playmaking skills placed in tandem with Pacioretty’s elite goal-scoring abilities.

Indeed, Drouin’s arrival heavily impacted Pacioretty’s production, but not in the manner people expected. The duo was a disaster throughout the season, barely above the team average in many on-ice shot metrics and considerably below it in terms of goal and high-danger scoring chance metrics.

In terms of actual individual production, Pacioretty notched only a single 5v5 goal while on the ice with Drouin, compared to four when playing with Phillip Danault.

“With-you” metrics for Max Pacioretty and various centres. CF: Corsi for; SF: shots for; GF: goals for; GA: goals against; SCF: scoring chances for; HDCF: high-danger scoring chances for; OZFO: offensive zone faceoff. Data courtesy Natural Stat Trick. Data is relative to team average values from respective years.

From a defensive standpoint, much has already been made about how Andrei Markov was instrumental to Pacioretty’s production. Certainly, over the previous two seasons, Pacioretty’s metrics when on the ice with Markov and/or P.K. Subban were much better than when the captain was paired with any other defenceman. This includes Shea Weber, although the Pacioretty-Weber combination was still quite serviceable in 2016-17, and likely heavily impacted by an Alexei Emelin-sized anchor.

“With-you” metrics for Max Pacioretty and various defencemen. CF: Corsi for; SF: shots for; GF: goals for; GA: goals against; SCF: scoring chances for; HDCF: high-danger scoring chances for; OZFO: offensive zone faceoff. Data courtesy Natural Stat Trick. Data is relative to team average values from respective years.

However, the long-term injury to Weber in this campaign meant that Pacioretty spent most of the year playing with Jeff Petry, Karl Alzner, and/or Jordie Benn. For whatever reason, Pacioretty has never had offensive chemistry with Petry, even extending to the 2016-17 season. Alzner is not a player that is dependable for offensive production, and the 2017-18 version of Benn is quite simply where offence went to die.

Having outlined why the captain’s offensive production declined in 2017-18, the question becomes: how can we get the perennial 30-goal-scorer back? Fortunately for the Canadiens, the answers are already here.

Lost in the angst surrounding Drouin’s failure is the fact that Danault has developed from a defensive counterweight in 2015-16 to an offensive contributor in 2017-18. As a rookie two years ago, Danault and Pacioretty together resulted in decent on-ice shot and chance metrics, but no improvement in net goal output; an acceptable outcome but not one worthy of a first line.

However, the 2017-18 version of the Danault-Pacioretty tag team exceeded team averages in every offensive category by considerable amounts (keep in mind that a 5% swing is roughly the difference between average and elite).

Danault’s 2017-18 performance still can’t match Alex Galchenyuk’s 2015-16 and 2016-17 numbers in terms of sheer goal production, but Danault with Pacioretty yields much better results for the Canadiens in terms of controlling the play and limiting opportunities against than Alex and Max: Team America.

Defensively, the story is similar. While most of the conversation centred around the loss of Markov, Shea Weber, now freed from the stone of Emelin and attached to the stone of Victor Mete, was witnessing an offensive renaissance. The Pacioretty-Weber combination effectively doubled the on-ice shot production benchmarks set by Markov and Subban in 2015-16, with the high-danger scoring chance generation balance superior by almost threefold. Only extremely bad luck and goaltending resulted in the abysmal goals-for percentage allocated to the pair, and thanks to Weber’s abrupt end to the season, we’ll never know if that statistic would have leveled out over time.

Restoring Max Pacioretty to the pantheon of elite goal-scorers in 2018-19 should not be a difficult task. The Canadiens were indeed successful in acquiring a French-Canadian centre to fill the void left by Desharnais at the captain’s side: they simply didn’t realize which one it was. A full season alongside Danault, supported by Weber, with situational elevation of Galchenyuk to the first line when the Canadiens desperately need a goal, would easily bring Pacioretty back to 30 goals — just in time for unrestricted free agency.