It took a season, but the Vegas Golden Knights are finally reaping the rewards of the rich contract to which they signed forward Max Pacioretty.
Pacioretty Falls on Hard Times
True, Pacioretty did score 22 goals last season, which normally wouldn’t be much at which to scoff. However, it’s plainly obvious the Golden Knights expected more from a guy who totaled just 40 points. Whether or not those expectations were justified is open for debate.
After all, when the Golden Knights signed Pacioretty to his current four-year, $28 million deal, he had been coming off the worst complete season, from a statistical perspective, of his career. The perennial 30-goal man, who has reached that mark five times before, didn’t even hit 20, tallying just 17 markers and 20 assists in 64 games.
Needless to say, when the Golden Knights traded for Pacioretty, they gambled heavily on the winger rediscovering his scoring touch. Not only was he on the verge of turning 30, but they gave up blue-chip-prospect Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick for him, with Tomas Tatar thrown in for good measure.
Pacioretty for Tatar
Granted, Tatar alone has arguably made the trade worthwhile for the Montreal Canadiens. He outscored Pacioretty last season and is putting together a decent 2019-20 campaign too. However, from the Golden Knights’ perspective, Tatar must have been a financial burden. They had just acquired his $5.3 million cap hit the previous trade deadline, but he failed to gain any traction in the lineup and head coach Gerard Gallant healthy-scratched him in all but eight playoff games during their Cinderella run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
So, because he wasn’t going to get more of a chance in Vegas, Tatar was more the Habs’ gain than the Golden Knights’ loss. Nevertheless, by all appearances in last season’s early-going, Pacioretty appeared to be another Tatar, healthy scratched and all (depending on who you ask).
In the first 14 games of last season, Pacioretty had just two goals (no assists). He then picked it up with 26 points (13 goals) over the next 25 games. While the stretch was incredibly impressive, it obviously didn’t last and Pacioretty’s supposedly trademark inconsistency reared its ugly head.
Positive Signs for Pacioretty
It’s why Pacioretty’s start to this current season is so encouraging. It isn’t just that he has the most points of any Golden Knight… although that is an undeniable positive even if he did lead the Habs in scoring for six straight seasons. It’s that he’s doing it at age 31, after everyone had written him off. It’s that, with nine goals (25 points in 27 games) so far, he’s effectively on pace to at least flirt with 30 once again.
Pacioretty has never been a point-per-game player, with him having topped out at 67 points twice in his career. However, playing with Mark Stone, Pacioretty could conceivably reach new heights. An ex-Habs captain in his own right, Pacioretty was never miscast as a first-line player while in Montreal, like Saku Koivu arguably had been. He always had the talent. He arguably never had the other first-line players with whom to play, though.
For example, David Desharnais was his most common center, while the latter was still with the Habs. After Desharnais, it was arguably Tomas Plekanec. Hardly guys you would consider as game-breaking offensive talents, although they did have their moments playing with Pacioretty. The best of the bunch was arguably Phillip Danault, but even then the optics were such that Pacioretty was carrying another third-line center.
In spite of Danault’s admitted prowess in all three zones, there was at least some truth to the sentiment, that Pacioretty was always the guy primarily relied on for offense in Montreal. The undue pressure of being named captain certainly didn’t do him any favors in the eyes of the fans, many of whom believe he failed in that regard… even if “captain” is a largely symbolic role.
Pacioretty Exceeding All Expectations
Truth be told, Pacioretty isn’t flying under the radar with the Golden Knights because he doesn’t wear a letter (he does in fact, as an alternate captain). It also isn’t just because he’s in the desert. The turnaround in Pacioretty’s game is arguably due to a multitude of factors, but chief among them? It has to be the superior support, starting with Stone. It took a while, but the Golden Knights along with the rest of the league are just discovering how much Pacioretty can actually produce when he’s got an elite talent with which to play.
The droves of Pacioretty critics out there may argue it’s Stone driving the play and his newfound success is tainted as a result. Even if that’s the case, Pacioretty is still surpassing any and all expectations, right? They may have been low to begin with, considering the two seasons leading into this one, but consider the fact that Pacioretty’s rich deal just started.
During those previous two disappointing seasons that had come to define him? Pacioretty had actually been producing at a pace in line with his $4.5 million cap hit. All this time, all the criticism leveled his way, it was all because the underappreciated Pacioretty had spoiled everyone rotten with his high level of play, year in, year out.
Few if any stopped to consider what Pacioretty was making at the time. Right about now? He’s making quite the point. And, as a point-per-game player, even at his new salary, it’s safe to say Pacioretty’s giving the Golden Knights their money’s worth.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.