Max Potential: How Pacioretty revived his career

A tumultuous year in Montreal followed by a trepidatious season in Vegas led to back-to-back underwhelming campaigns for Max Pacioretty. But now, having fully adjusted to life both on and off the ice with his new team, he’s once again become one of the game’s premier goal-scorers.
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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

It’s pin-drop quiet on this January afternoon in downtown Buffalo. The holiday season has passed, and it’s as if the local citizens have entered hibernation. Parked cars outnumber visible people on the sidewalks. The scene foreshadows the worldwide changes to life as we know it in the months to come.

The Vegas Golden Knights, arriving in town a day before their next game to adjust to the three-hour time change, practise quietly at KeyBank Center, the Sabres’ home barn. The stands are empty. The hallways are barren, save for two players on stationary bikes debating whether they can make a 2:35 showing of the Oscar-nominated film 1917.

It’s downright tranquil here, and that seems to suit left winger Max Pacioretty just fine. He smirks playfully during line rushes with Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone. After leaving the ice, Pacioretty speaks in his unmistakable baritone, his gaze rarely lifting off the floor, but he does so with a satisfied smile and chooses his words sincerely. He’s visibly happy, and not merely because he learned three days earlier he’d be playing in the first All-Star Game of his 12-year career. The euphoria comes from somewhere less superficial.

It appears Pacioretty has found a degree of peace 16 months after the tumultuous end of his 10-year tenure with the Montreal Canadiens, which included three seasons as captain. In 2017-18, with the Habs slipping out of the playoff picture, he became a rumor-mill mainstay given he had just one season remaining on his contract. The media questions about his future were constant. No team met GM Marc Bergevin’s price at the 2018 trade deadline, and in April exit interviews, Pacioretty insisted he and his family were invested in the city, that he never requested a trade.

Still, it was impossible to halt the momentum behind the idea. Pacioretty was 29 and fresh off an injury-shortened 17-goal season that ended a streak of four straight 30-goal efforts. He no longer fit into Montreal’s long-term plans, and that left him and his family in a state of limbo during the 2018 off-season.

“I was just waiting with my bags packed, phoning my agent every day, asking if he knew where I was going to pack up and bring my family, my three kids, my wife – sorry, my pregnant wife – so there’s a lot obviously on the plate there,” Pacioretty said. “But at the end of the day, I hate when people complain about that stuff, because you play in the NHL, so life could be so much worse. There’s a lot of things in the world going on that are worse than packing up your family and changing cities. But to say that two summers ago was a lot less comfortable than this summer is pretty obvious.”

The trade happened Sept. 9, 2018, with Pacioretty heading to Vegas for Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick. Pacioretty, his three (now four) sons and wife Katia – sister of ex-NHLer Maxim Afinogenov – had a new home, and Pacioretty signed a four-year, $28-million deal the day after the trade.

But the change of address didn’t bring immediate relief. Arriving in the middle of camp created a scramble to adjust to a new life in a vastly different market than Montreal. Having waited for a trade all summer, Pacioretty hadn’t undergone his typical off-season training in his native Connecticut. He, like the other new members of Vegas’ roster, also didn’t understand right away how to fit into a lineup that was already among the Stanley Cup favorites to open 2018-19.

“We came to a scenario where everyone had exceeded all the expectations and they’d made it to the Stanley Cup final,” Pacioretty said. “So we all kind of came in, I don’t want to say walking on eggshells, but you don’t want to take over too much of the room. You just want to fit in nicely and quietly.”

Whether the off-ice transition was to blame, or whether it was the collection of minor injuries that cost him 16 games, Pacioretty’s first season in Las Vegas wasn’t great. He acknowledges it but detests talking about it, as he doesn’t want to make any particular excuse for a season in which he scored 22 goals and continued the trend of declining play that began the season prior.

Still, the end of 2018-19 brought hope. He began to gel with center Paul Stastny, who had missed 30 games after an October injury, and a trade for elite two-way right winger Stone created a “second” line that began to outproduce the first line, particularly in the playoffs, when the Pacioretty-Stastny-Stone unit combined for 13 goals in seven games.

Pacioretty loved playing with them, and the feeling was mutual.

“He’s very competitive – you notice that from the first game you play with him,” Stone said. “He’s involved. He wants to be involved. He’s involved in the good, the bad. He wants to be a game-changer. You look at him, and he looks pretty monotone when you see his interviews and you don’t know him, but he’s intense and wants to be a difference-maker.”

Armed with confidence after a strong finish, Pacioretty got to enjoy a “normal” summer leading up to his second campaign with the Golden Knights. With no impending trade to worry about, he returned to Connecticut to work with his longtime trainer, Ben Prentiss, the same man who helped bring Pacioretty back from a career-threatening broken neck in 2011, sustained on the infamous play in which Boston’s Zdeno Chara checked him into a stanchion. The rehabilitated Pacioretty won the Masterton Trophy in 2011-12 for his perseverance. By comparison, then, the repair work he and Prentiss did in the summer of 2019 was easy.

Prentiss got Pacioretty back to the powerlifting routine that gives the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder his famously impressive speed and explosiveness. He felt better physically – and mentally – when he arrived at Vegas’ 2019-20 camp. He and his family had adjusted to their environment, with a little help from Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

“I didn’t know Max a lot,” Fleury said. “We crossed each other at the gym once in a while that summer (in Montreal in 2018), and I told him how good Vegas was, and that me and my family love it. It’s not just The Strip, right? ‘Maybe the suburbs, you should go into the area, close to the practice rink where most of the guys are at. Good schools for kids.’ His kids are close to my kids’ age, so I just told him little things for a family.”

The Paciorettys have acclimated. He’s been blown away not just by the schools and neighborhoods that Vegas has but also by the youth-hockey options. Vegas, which, as unofficial tour guide Fleury points out, has a metro population exceeding two million, felt like home quicker than expected for Pacioretty.

“I consider myself an East Coaster, and a lot of people from the East Coast seem to make their way out to Vegas, much more than I had ever thought,” he said. “So I have a lot in common with a lot of the people living in Vegas and found a bit of a love for living out west. I’m kind of obsessed now with living in a place like Vegas and the lifestyle. There’s a lot less stress on schedules and getting dressed and getting the kids prepared for school. It’s a pretty easy lifestyle. And it’s fun living there.”

With the body and mind feeling the best they have in years, it makes sense to see Pacioretty re-emerge as one of hockey’s best left wingers. For a six-season stretch from 2011-12 through 2016-17, he scored more goals than every NHLer other than Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Joe Pavelski, and at 30 years old entering 2019-20, his game wasn’t about to disintegrate.
Instead, it’s returned to its previous high standard.

By the March-12 NHL shutdown, Pacioretty’s 32 goals tied him for third in the league among left wingers, and he ranked third among all NHLers in shots behind Nathan MacKinnon and Ovechkin. At 5-on-5, among 334 forwards with at least 500 minutes played, Pacioretty had the fourth-best Corsi and second-most individual shots per 60 minutes. He’d earned the all-star recognition and then some.

As much as Pacioretty’s success is individual, it’s also the product of how he vibes with his teammates. As Fleury explains, Pacioretty fits in well because his time in the media microwave of Montreal has made him relatively immune to pressure. He’s a calming presence in the room – and he has clicked with his linemates, especially his most common one: Stone.

Stone says Pacioretty is a tinkerer who constantly asks teammates questions and watches a ton of hockey with his kids even when he has a day off. That studiousness shows when you ask Pacioretty to describe his connection with his linemates. His scouting report on what it’s like to play with Stone, one of the most unique and gifted two-way forwards in the sport, is remarkably detailed.

“He does so many things for our line that you can’t even really explain or talk about, but when you have the chemistry with a guy like that who...you can bat down a puck, but if I’m not anticipating him batting down that puck, then it’s a useless possession, and we’re not going to get anything out of it,” Pacioretty said. “So me now knowing scenarios, like, where the puck is coming, I’m almost playing the odds in my head, and his odds are much higher than anyone else’s odds that he’s going to steal a puck or bat it down. Well, it’s up to me, as his linemate, to make sure I put myself in a position for him to distribute it to me to make a play after that, and I think I’m getting better at that.

“Often times, early on, I was so amazed that he had stolen possession of it that I was still worrying about a backcheck or thinking the puck’s going to end up back in our zone, but I think I’m doing a better job now of knowing he’s the best in the league at taking away the puck.”

That wasn’t even the full monologue. Yes, monologue. He has a lot to say about Stone and does so enthusiastically. Pacioretty seems more talkative when discussing someone other than himself. Maybe because he got so much attention, perhaps too much, in Montreal, he shies away from it now. He considered the fan-vote aspect of making the All-Star Game to be “outside noise.” What really mattered more, he says, was when members of his organization told him he deserved it. All he wants is approval from the coaching staff, management and teammates. That’s the juice in his mind.

And while Vegas has developed a rabid fan base in just two-plus seasons, one that puts 1,000 people in seats just for practices, the frenzy hardly mirrors what Pacioretty experienced in Montreal. By comparison, it’s quiet, and it appears that’s exactly what he and his family needed. With inner calm achieved, the old ‘Patches’ is back.

This is an updated version of a feature that originally appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Trade Deadline Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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