Canadiens & Pacioretty: Is the Love Gone?

You could feel the tension on the Montreal metro the morning of March 9, 2011. The night before, Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens’ 22-year-old left wing and emerging star, was pushed into a stanchion at the end of the visitor’s bench by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara during the game, leaving him motionless on the ice. The hit was intentional but the intent to injure subject to speculation.

Subsequent calls for Chara’s arrest were somewhat extreme but nevertheless, most people were worried about Pacioretty’s health and even his future as they glanced at phones and local papers on their way to work.

The support Habs fans give to their players is legendary, whether it was the length of the line at Howie Morenz’s funeral in 1937, the destruction resulting from the Richard Riot in 1955, or the general sense of jubilation at every Stanley Cup parade. Pacioretty appeared to be on the verge of bringing glory to a franchise that had struggled to win consistently over the previous two decades and in doing so, the Connecticut native became a local hero.

After recovering from the hit and returning to the team for the 2011-12 season, he began a string of 30-goal seasons interrupted only by the 2012-13 NHL lockout. He established himself as one of the league’s top left wingers and a sniper feared by opposing goaltenders. He also matured, married, became a father, and adopted the Montreal community as his own. For this, he was rewarded with the captaincy in 2015, a move that would be heralded by some but would haunt him later on.

Pacioretty’s Contract Extension Talks Stalled

The revelation this week that Pacioretty is on the trading block has many people wondering how his relationship with the team soured. After all, his current contract will pay him only $4.5 million next year, a bargain considering his production over the past few seasons. While he was the Habs’ most consistent scorer since 2011-12, he struggled to hit the net last year, tallying 17 goals in 64 games before he was sidelined with an injury.

Off-seasons are not uncommon – many superstars have years they wish to forget- but Pacioretty has been under the microscope for the past two years for another reason.

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Not a natural playmaker, he has always relied on teammates to set him up with timely passes to be effective. When Alexander Radulov signed with the Dallas Stars after a successful comeback year with the Habs, that task was left primarily to Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw, both of whom also battled injuries, leaving coach Claude Julien to juggle his line combinations. What mattered more, however, was his status as captain.

The Subban Trade and Pacioretty’s Leadership

The rumours preceding the 2016 trade of P. K. Subban to the Nashville Predators focused on conflict in the Habs’ dressing room, most notably between Pacioretty and the flashy defenseman.

While the team was careful not to assign blame to anyone, the consistent speculation among fans and the media fueled the idea that Pacioretty was partly to blame for the trade. As the perceived victor, he was now expected to lead the Subban-less Habs to a more successful year than the dismal 2015-16 season that left them with a losing record and out of the playoff hunt.

The 2016-17 season marked an improvement in the Canadiens’ performance overall – the team rose to the top of the Atlantic Division with 103 points, while the Pacioretty-Danault-Radulov line produced consistently. In the playoffs, the Habs looked lacklustre, losing to the New York Rangers in the first round 4-2, with Pacioretty managing only one point in six games. His poor performance was magnified by a fight with Rangers rookie Jimmy Vesey that did little to pump up his team and served more to show his frustration and lack of leadership.

That first-round exit, coupled with Subban’s ascent to the Stanley Cup Final with his new team, suggested the Canadiens chose the wrong captain and traded the wrong player.

The Legacy of Canadiens’ Captains Haunts Pacioretty

Wearing the “C” on a Canadiens jersey automatically links the player to those who proceeded him. Fans know the history of Saku Koivu’s comeback from a cancer diagnosis, Bob Gainey’s fearless leadership and willingness to play with multiple injuries, and legendary names like Maurice Richard and Toe Blake. However, one name consistently stands out.

In the middle of the 2014-15 season, Jean Béliveau, who captained the Habs to five Stanley Cups, died at the age of 83. His legacy was celebrated well into the following season, with numerous tributes and frequent attention to his widow, Élise, a consistent presence at the team’s home games. Her admiration for the departed Subban was noteworthy not just because of the trade but also because of her lack of attention to Pacioretty.

Her opinion was valued because of the heroic exploits of her husband. On April 8, 1971, in the second game of the Habs/Bruins Quarterfinal playoff series, the Bruins- who dominated the NHL and set numerous team and individual records that year –  led 5-1 late in the second period. An inspirational speech by Béliveau led to an improbable comeback. The Habs scored six goals to win the game 7-5, with Béliveau scoring twice and adding two assists.

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The Habs would go on to defeat Boston and eventually win the Stanley Cup, Béliveau would lift it for the last time as a player as he retired after the season. During those playoffs, there was no childish fight, no remorseful clichés in the dressing room after the game — just a player who knew that being a Canadiens’ captain required more than just the honour itself.

Pacioretty and Bergevin’s Differences Are Apparent

When GM Marc Bergevin discussed the Canadiens’ poor attitude in a press conference at the end of last season, it wasn’t hard to interpret his words as a shot towards the captain. The two men could not be more different; Bergevin was a working-class kid from the Point St. Charles neighbourhood of Montreal who grew up admiring the hockey exploits of his friend and another great leader, Mario Lemieux.

Pacioretty has the detached, cerebral personality of an American college kid, a trait becoming more common in a league where players come from families who invest a fortune in their development. He may actually be a great motivator on the bench and in the dressing room, but fans have been conditioned to see him as someone who lacks the passion of a player like Subban. Sadly, perception matters more than fact in this social-media-driven era.

One can only speculate how he views himself as a captain but you can be sure it differs from the opinion held by Bergevin, who still sees the exploits of Béliveau and Lemieux as blueprints for what a leader looks like. In the end, I think Pacioretty will come out on top, especially if he plays under an offensive-minded coach and is paired with a solid playmaking centre on his new team. He will not likely be named captain but only then will he realize it was an unnecessary burden in the first place.