Max Pacioretty and the Search for a Superstar

Pacioretty

March 8th, 2011.

The Montreal Canadiens were playing the Boston Bruins. It was a game that could have defined the career of Max Pacioretty. The skilled and physical winger was racing for a loose puck against Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. Showing the hustle and speed he was known for, Pacioretty tried to angle around Chara as he approached the puck. However, the 6-9 defensemen had other ideas. Chara drove Pacioretty headfirst into the turnbuckle between the team’s benches.

The force in which Pacioretty hit the turnbuckle was sickening. He immediately crumpled to the ice, and was stretchered off after laying there motionless for what seemed like an eternity.

The primary concern was Pacioretty’s health. Was he alive? The hit was one of the most vicious in the history of the sport. Chara was not disciplined by the league. People tried to speculate Chara’s intent. He didn’t have a history of playing dirty. Pacioretty suffered a non-displaced fracture of his fourth cervical vertebrae (in other words, a broken neck).

Pacioretty was lucky. The hit could have ended his career, or worse, his life. Once he was given the diagnosis, he started a grueling rehabilitation process. The concern shifted from his health to his future as a hockey player. He had carved out a reputation in the USHL, NCAA, and AHL as a gritty and fearless winger with tremendous speed. People wondered if he would be able to play the same style of game after the injury. Would he still relentlessly chase loose pucks all over the ice? Would he now think twice about giving and taking body checks?

Pacioretty was back on the ice three weeks after the hit, making it clear that the fearlessness that he was known for hadn’t left him. He didn’t play again in 2010-11, but was fully healthy by the time the 2011-12 season started.

Pacioretty and Chara will be forever linked because of the hit. However, Pacioretty refused to let the hit define his career.

The Search for a Superstar

It has been a long time since the Montreal Canadiens have had a superstar forward. Saku Koivu, one of the toughest players in the history of the sport both on and off the ice, was the best they had for a while. Before him, Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeon were the elite offensive talents that donned the bleu, blanc, et rouge.

Pacioretty was drafted budding power forward, but his offensive upside was the subject of great debate in Montreal. He spent only one season in college with Michigan before turning pro, and many thought that the Canadiens rushed him. His early struggles at the NHL level validated those critics, but just as he had done at every level of hockey, Pacioretty worked extremely hard and his critics were soon quieted.

Entering the 2012-13 season, Pacioretty is Montreal’s best forward. Tomas Plekanec plays an understated two-way game, but Pacioretty’s speed, size, instincts, and presence on the ice is irreplaceable for for the Canadiens. Just over a year after his career was in jeopardy, Pacioretty put the finishing touches on a 33-goal, 65-point season by winning the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.

Pacioretty persevered through a broken neck and concussion, displayed tremendous sportsmanship by forgiving Chara, and showed an unwavering dedication to ice hockey by coming back stronger in every way possible.

This past season, Pacioretty was one of a few bright spots on an otherwise forgettable Montreal squad. He spearheaded the offensive attack, playing on a line with fellow American Erik Cole and the undersized but  talented David Desharnais. The Canadiens were a circus off the ice with their numerous managerial and coaching issues. Not to mention trading away star forward Mike Cammalleri during a game.

The Habs have the right pieces in place to succeed. A new GM in Marc Bergevin, a returning coach in Michel Therrien, and a strong core in place, with Carey Price in goal, PK Subban and Josh Gorges on the back end, and Pacioretty leading an unheralded group of forwards.

Can Pacioretty be the first elite forward in Montreal since Guy Lafleur? To better answer this question, I consulted Stephan Cooper (who contributes to Habs Eyes on the Prize in addition to running A Winning Habit) and Andrew Berkshire (who also contributes to Habs Eyes on the Prize).

Even though he was born and raised in Connecticut, hockey wasn’t a huge part of Pacioretty’s family life. In fact, his parents relocated from California only a few years before he was born. Pacioretty fell in love with the sport at an early age, but never thought he would be able to play hockey as a career. A lack of size was the main issue holding him back through minor hockey.

“I was playing to play and then I went to prep school, and I was much smaller than everyone. I had the mindset that I wanted to play college hockey… and I had a good year, and got a new trainer and it worked out really well from there.”

Pacioretty’s quest to play college hockey carried him to an unlikely destination – Sioux City, Iowa, where he played with the USHL’s Musketeers in 2006-07. On moving to Iowa at the age of 17:

“I had never been there before, but… I wanted to be a hockey player. So it was a decision that I didn’t even need to think twice about. I knew that it was going to help my game and my career.”

Pacioretty was right. The Montreal Canadiens loved what they saw from the young power forward that season, using their second pick (22nd overall) in 2007 on him (they selected defenseman Ryan McDonagh earlier in round one. Pacioretty finished with 21 goals, 63 points, and 119 PIM in 60 games with Sioux City.

He realized his dream of playing college hockey the next season, suiting up for the University of Michigan. He felt right at home.

“The environment, it was like nothing else that I had ever been a part of. I am a high-energy type player, and I really love playing in good environments because I love getting the crowd into the game whether it is making a hit or something little like blocking a shot.”

Thanks to a late growth spurt, Pacioretty was quickly becoming a force on the ice. He hadn’t lost any of the speed or acceleration of his younger years, and he was now better able to use it on the forecheck to create scoring opportunities. He led the Wolverines to the CCHA Championship that year, and was named CCHA Rookie of the Year.

Pacioretty’s tenure with the Wolverines was short lived, though, as he turned professional after his freshman year. The decision to take him out of college after only one year was a bit puzzling to some, but a few people in the NHL had very negative views of the Michigan hockey program. The most outspoken critic was Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi, who didn’t like how Michigan coach Red Berenson handled his star prospect Jack Johnson.

“Michigan is the worst. Red [Berenson] doesn’t coach. It’s ‘do what you want.’ He gets the best players in the country. [Johnson] has never had any coaching. Jack just did what he wanted.”

The Canadiens never went on record with any criticism of Michigan’s hockey program, but they were in a hurry to get Pacioretty out of there. Stephan Cooper and Andrew Berkshire provided some more insights.

What was the thought around taking Pacioretty out of college after one year? I know several hockey people have commented negatively about Michigan’s hockey program (Dean Lombardi, for example).

SC: Quite a few people thought he wasn’t ready to make the jump, his coach Red Berenson thought he should have stayed. As far as Michigan’s program goes, I know it’s seen as one of the better NCAA organizations by a lot of people. A large number of Wolverines become NHLers. Keep in mind that Pacioretty was playing professionally at 19, which is an age when most CHL draft pick are still in junior. Pacioretty’s offensive production in his rookie NCAA justified the jump but there was speculation that was a result of some good linemates.

The degree that Pacioretty was ready for the pro game at 19 became apparent in his rookie professional year. He was prepared to be a body at the NHL level but not an impact player and he was a very good player in the AHL. He did have a difficulty getting the puck in the net which reflected his low goal totals and a lot of people noticed that he was the recipient of a large number of big hits. He was attempting to play a power game on a 19 year old body in the pros and he wasn’t ready for that.

AB: There weren’t any complaints about how Pacioretty was handled in Michigan. He was excellent in training camp as a rookie which got him a call up into the NHL that year even though he wasn’t scoring very much in the AHL. His point totals as a 19/20 year old in the AHL however were very impressive. After two years where he struggled to actually score, many people thought he was rushed along too fast, but while he was probably taken out of the AHL too soon, his second pro year looked worse than it was due to poor shooting luck and a tough role.

 As both Stephan and Andrew mention, Pacioretty was ready for aspects of the professional game (the speed, the size, the strength), but he was still very rough around the edges.  In his first season as a pro (2008-09), Pacioretty split time between Hamilton and Montreal. He scored only three goals in 34 games for the Habs, and lit the lamp only six times in 37 games for the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs made a coaching change before the 2009-10 season, letting Don Lever go in favor of Guy Boucher. Boucher’s impact was immediate. The Bulldogs won 52 games under Boucher, and several prospects got back on track with their development. Pacioretty spent most of that season with Montreal, though, as he didn’t get the benefit of learning from Boucher.

“In a brief interview with Mathieu Carle [a defenseman for Hamilton], Carle flat out stated that he’d learned more in three months under Guy Boucher than he did in two years under Don Lever.”

Pacioretty’s offensive struggles continued in 2009-10. In 52 games with the Canadiens, he scored only three goals. One reason for his poor production was simply bad luck. Pacioretty had the worst on-ice team shooting percentage among all Montreal forwards at 5.1 percent. Among all NHL forwards who played at least 40 games, Pacioretty’s 5.1 percent was in the bottom 20 of the entire league. Obviously the most skilled shooters in the league have better accuracy, and this correlates to a higher shooting percentage. Pacioretty’s shot was a work-in-progress, but he wasn’t receiving any help from his linemates or teammates, either.

Frequency Strength 2009-10 Line Combinations
42.59% EV 15 METROPOLIT,GLEN – 32 MOEN,TRAVIS – 67 PACIORETTY,MAX
11.96% EV 46 KOSTITSYN,ANDREI – 67 PACIORETTY,MAX – 14 PLEKANEC,TOMAS

Pacioretty knew he had a lot to prove heading in to the 2010-11 season. He started the season off in the AHL, and he absolutely dominated (17 goals and 32 points in 27 games) before getting the call back up to Montreal. He was a different player in his third stint with the Canadiens – more confident, more polished, and relied upon more to contribute offensively. In 37 games (before the Chara hit), Pacioretty scored 14 goals and added 10 assists (over a full 82 game schedule, totals that project to 31 goals and 22 assists).

What was the biggest difference in his play between 2009-10 and 2010-11?

 SC:  One – Size and strength. Pacioretty basically upgraded his entire muscle mass which took him from 200 pounds to 210-215. This was the end result of a multi-year project of slowly adding muscle so his skating would be improved rather than reduced by the gain. The result when in was finished over the summer of 2010 was a very fast player that could overpower NHL defenders with strength as well. This also allowed him to become a strong presence around the net both on the power play andat  even strength.

Two – shooting. Pacioretty began shooting the puck as often as possible, rather than holding the puck for too long or looking to pass. His shot totals ballooned as a result. A markedly higher percentage of his shots becoming goals followed. These changes allowed a player that already was fast, had good puck skills, was reasonably responsible in his own end and had pretty good hockey sense to become a very dangerous scorer.

 AB: Opportunity, luck, and his role. No doubt part of it was Pacioretty getting stronger and more mature, but in 2009-10 his most common linemates were Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit (Pacioretty was also playing his off side), whereas in 2010-11 he got to work with Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. Pacioretty is an interesting case looking at just surface stats because his shooting luck was absurdly poor for 2 whole years. His shooting percentage was 5.19% through 2 years in the AHL, and 4.58% in the NHL. Unsustainably low for someone with such a heavy shot and a quick release. Even in his last two years where he’s broken out, he hasn’t really gotten ‘lucky’ yet.

 As Andrew said, Pacioretty was seeing regular minutes with Montreal’s top players.

Frequency Strength Line Combination
52.40% EV 21 GIONTA,BRIAN – 11 GOMEZ,SCOTT – 67 PACIORETTY,MAX
19.54% EV 21 GIONTA,BRIAN – 67 PACIORETTY,MAX – 14 PLEKANEC,TOMAS

Pacioretty had his offensive breakout in 2010-11. When he was drafted, he was billed as a future power forward, but scouts couldn’t agree on his offensive upside. Some thought he would top out as an energy player, while others believed Pacioretty possessed the tools to become a top line winger.

Pacioretty was drafted as more of an energy player than a scorer, no? Has the offense been a surprise, or has it been just a case of a prospect getting comfortable at the NHL level?

SC: Pacioretty was drafted with the idea of him having power forward potential. Current teammate Erik Cole was used as a comparable. He went lower in the draft for being a not especially dominant player in the USHL at 17, which is seen as a weaker league than the CHL. So the upside was always seen to be there just a lower chance of achieving it. He has added elements to his game that weren’t there in his draft year though which is a big reason he’s a now a 30 goal star winger. His production in the NCAA at 18 and AHL at 19 both resembled that of a guy that would be at least a top six forward. But I know a lot of Habs fans were thinking of him as the next Chris Higgins at that point rather than the next Erik Cole.

AB: Pierre McGuire vocally said he would be an excellent 3rd liner many times after he struggled to score in his first two pro seasons, but he was drafted as a scorer. In his draft year as a 17 year old, he had 4 shots per game in the USHL, not something you would expect from a grinder type. He’s always been a high volume shooter with a deadly release. The offense did still come as a surprise to most though, because he wasn’t expected to be a 30+ goal scorer. It could have been getting comfortable in the NHL, but I think it has just as much to do with usage. He was used as a shut down forward to start, so that’s what he did. When he was put in a top 6 role, he started to score.

The Cole acquisition by Montreal wasn’t universally lauded at the time. The Canadiens signed Cole to a four-year contract during the summer of 2011. 2010-11 marked the first time that the veteran winger had suited up for all 82 games in a single season. In the previous season, Cole suited up in only 40 contests for the Hurricanes. Forwards typically don’t post career numbers at the age of 33, but that is exactly what happened with Cole. He scored a career-high 35 goals and tied his career best mark of 61 points while skating on Montreal’s top line with Pacioretty and Desharnais.

Pacioretty had often been compared to Cole for his gritty and fearless style of play. The two American born wingers also shared another similarity – both had suffered broken necks. Cole was slammed into the boards by Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik during the 2005-06 season, and he was able to come back in time to suit up for two games in the Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers.

What kind of influence has Erik Cole had on Pacioretty? 

SC: From what I hear, a great deal on how to come back from a neck injury and still play a power game. But what made Max Pacioretty such a force in 2011-12 was already there in 2010-11 where he was pretty much as good. The player the Habs got last year was already there in 2010-11, people didn’t know so much about it because it his year got cut short by injury.

A more interesting influence on Pacioretty is Mike Cammalleri. From what I hear Max sought him out to instruct him on the finer points of how to be a goal-scorer in the NHL over the past two years. This can be seen in a number of Cammalleri’s skills Pacioretty has adopted for himself, down to Cammalleri’s signature “down on one knee” one-timer technique.

AB: I don’t think it hurts to have another 6-2 power forward who’s also broken his neck and come back. Cole’s aggressiveness last year likely allowed Pacioretty to capitalize on more loose pucks, but that’s just an assumption.

Can an aging Cole supply 30 goals again? Can Desharnais repeat his performance of 2011-12? Can the Canadiens get enough production from forwards like Lars Eller, Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, and Rene Bourque to take some of the pressure off of their top line?

Where does Pacioretty go from here?

SC: Right now everything points to him becoming a star top line winger. Pacioretty generates a tremendous volume of shots and scoring chances at both even strength and the power play. 30-goal seasons look to be sustainable for his peak seasons (which should be 23-28). I would not be surprised if everything goes his way one season that he manages 40, but that’s a tough feat and I don’t expect him to have such a charmed year. Pacioretty also is a rare ability to tilt the ice in his team’s favour for a winger, his positive impact on team puck possession is very high for his position.

AB: A 35-40-goal scoring top line left wing. He has the strength, speed and shot to be an elite player in this league.

Does Pacioretty have the ability to be the first Montreal superstar forward since…. Lafleur?

SC: That depends on what you consider a superstar to be. Most Habs fans would say the last one of those they had at forward was Lafleur. The last Habs to have really notable offensive years were Turgeon and Damphousse in 1995-96. Except for one lockout shorted year in his youth before injuries caught up with him, Koivu was never seen as a really big star in Montreal, merely the best they had. He was pretty similar to Plekanec now. If we’re talking comparables, I’d say Pacioretty has the most complete offensive game at forward the team has seen since Kirk Muller. Pacioretty is the best forward to come through the Habs system in a long time and should eclipse the recent successes in Plekanec, Koivu and Mike Ribeiro. I don’t think you can call him a superstar but I think he’s a guy that should get a number of invitations to the All-Star Game over the course of his career.

AB: Koivu could have been if not for the injuries, but for a consistent star forward I think you have to go back to Damphousse. That said, Plekanec is incredibly under rated around the league for what he does. I would say that yes, Pacioretty has the ability to be that superstar forward, but he needs good linemates with him.

Some other Pacioretty numbers:

  • Ninth in shots per game in 2011-12 with 3.6
  • Had the best EV Corsi in the NHL in 2010-11 (23.1)
  • 29 even-strength goals in 2011-12, which ranked him fourth in the league
  • 52 even-strength points in 2011-12, which ranked him 20th in the league

Pacioretty’s rise to stardom is highlighted by several other statistics, as well. He is ranked against Montreal’s other forwards.

TEAM Corsi Relative Rank Corsi On Rank GF On/60 Rank SF On/60 Rank
2011-12 Season MTL 12.3 1 4.73 1 3.31 1 29 1
2010-11 Season MTL 22.4 1 23.09 1 2.7 2 35.9 1


Corsi Rel QoC Rank G/60 Rank A1/60 Rank Off Zone Start % Rank
2011-12 Season MTL 0.07 5 1.47 1 0.74 1 49.4 4
2010-11 Season MTL 0.48 8 0.61 8 0.61 6 56.9 1

For an explanation of what statistics like Corsi record, I’d recommend reading the glossary at Puck Prospectus.

Over the past two years, he has:

  • Led all Montreal forwards in Relative Corsi
  • Led all Montreal forwards in Corsi
  • Been first or second in team goals for while on the ice (per 60 minutes)
  • Led Montreal’s forwards in team shots for while on the ice (per 60 minutes)
  • In 2011-12 he led all Montreal forwards in goals and primary assists generated (per 60 minutes)
  • Led all NHL left wingers in 2011-12 with 1.47 goals for (per 60 minutes)
  • Fourth among all NHL left wingers in 2011-12 with 2.68 points for (per 60 minutes)

The Canadiens have put him in a position to succeed offensively. He doesn’t play extremely difficult minutes, and he sees a greater portion of offensive zone starts relative to his teammates (in 2010-11 he started 56.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone).

Pacioretty has big shoes to fill in Montreal, regardless of who you think he is replacing. Lafleur was one of the best forwards in the history of the sport. Koivu was a very good player on the ice and an even better person off of it during his tenure as Montreal’s captain. The most apt comparison for Pacioretty may be Muller, who helped the 1993 Montreal squad to a Stanley Cup. Pacioretty is only just beginning to create his legacy as a Canadien, but he is already embracing his role in the community, setting up the Max Pacioretty Foundation.

“Pacioretty’s foundation’s goal is to help the Montreal General Hospital by purchasing a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine designed to analyze the effects of brain injuries.”

The Canadiens have a future star in goal with Carey Price. On the back end, PK Subban is on his way to becoming a very good player. Pacioretty doesn’t have Price’s pedigree or Subban’s swagger, but he could be the most important player to the Canadiens if they hope to restore the winning tradition in Montreal. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said:

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

March 8th, 2011 could have defined Pacioretty’s career as a hockey player. It could have ended his life. Whatever you want to believe, it is impossible to argue that he isn’t a stronger player – and a person – for it.