*This article was published in Sep. 2021
They say that the best trades in sports come when both teams involved stand to benefit, but try telling that to fans of the Vegas Golden Knights in the aftermath of the Max Pacioretty blockbuster that occurred a little over three years ago. There’s no question that the 33-year-old veteran winger delivered after arriving in Vegas, but it’s hard not to look towards the Montreal Canadiens – even as they struggled last season – and feel at least a pang of regret.
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Sensing an open window for Stanley Cup contention, the Golden Knights went all in to acquire a top-line scoring threat and proven leader in Pacioretty, parting ways with then-prospect Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round draft pick that became Samuel Fagemo. In that sense, there was always the risk that the deal’s immediate dividends would ultimately give way to long-term losses. Perhaps Vegas brass just didn’t know those losses would be so directly evident in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.
What Vegas Was Thinking
The Golden Knights were fresh off a Stanley Cup defeat when they decided to trade for Pacioretty, the former Habs captain who seemed to be on the outs with his only NHL home to that point. In Pacioretty, they were acquiring a proven goalscorer boasting five 30+ goal seasons in Montreal. Even after expansion breakout campaigns from the likes of William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault, the Golden Knights still coveted established top-line talent.
Benefiting from a treasure trove of draft picks and prospects stemming from the 2017 Expansion Draft, Vegas were dealing from an area of strength to add star power to an already Cup-caliber roster. The same was true of Pacioretty’s subsequent hefty contract extension, which came at a (now unimaginable) time when the organization had cap space to burn.
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Not only did Pacioretty represent the team’s first bona fide star forward (Mark Stone would arrive about five months later), but Vegas still boasted a promising prospect cupboard that included the likes of Cody Glass, making Suzuki somewhat expendable.
What Vegas Has Gotten
Injuries and the club’s inability to secure the franchise’s first championship have somewhat obscured just how good Pacioretty has been. After a slight dip in production in 2018-19 that saw him tally 22 goals and 40 points in 66 games, the 2012 Masterton Trophy winner has bounced back with 56 goals and 117 points in 119 games over the previous two full seasons.
More significant were Pacioretty’s postseason contributions. The New Canaan, Connecticut, native recorded 15 goals and 30 points across 36 playoff contests as a member of the Golden Knights. Pacioretty’s time in Vegas was shorter than most fans would have wanted as the team dealt him to the Carolina Hurricanes in a salary dump.
What Vegas Gave Up
So, what’s the problem, then? Well, for one thing, Suzuki has looked every bit the part of the franchise cornerstone that Vegas had in mind when they drafted him 13th overall in 2017. Through two full NHL seasons, the 22-year-old has shown promise as both a scorer (28 goals) and playmaker (54 assists) while making improvements in the faceoff circle.
Under normal circumstances, watching Suzuki succeed in Montreal probably would have been fine for Vegas brass – after all, you put time, energy and resources into developing players and it’s nice to see them do well even if it isn’t for your team. But then the 2021 postseason happened, and a pandemic-influenced alignment quirk allowed the Golden Knights to meet the Canadiens for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
As we now know, the Habs upset the heavily-favored Knights 4-2 during a fairytale playoff run that also saw them topple the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets en route to the Cup Final despite finishing the regular season with the league’s 18th-best record. Suzuki was an integral part of that, recording 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 22 games, including a goal and four assists against his former team.
There are also the contributions of Tatar to consider. The veteran Slovak never quite fit in with the Golden Knights after being acquired at the 2018 trade deadline, but that all changed once he got to Montreal. His first two seasons with the Habs produced 47 goals and 119 points. In fact, Tatar’s career numbers across three seasons in Montreal (149 points in 198 games) were surprisingly similar to what Pacioretty did in Vegas (194 points in 224 games).
Through draft night wheeling and dealing, Montreal turned Vegas’ second-round pick into defensive prospects Mattias Norlinder and Jacob LaGuerrier. While Norlinder enjoyed a brief stint with the big club last month, he’s since made noise about returning to Sweden upon being sent down. LaGuerrier, meanwhile, is currently developing in the ECHL.
Who Won the Trade?
This deal has clearly evolved over time, taking the type of path you might expect from an established-veteran-for-young-prospect blockbuster. But while age and time clearly favor Suzuki and the Habs, this season has already forced a pause on any “Montreal is the clear winner” argument.
With the Canadiens’ Cinderella Cup run a distant memory thanks to some major 2021-22 struggles, Suzuki’s performance has dipped accordingly. In what was expected to be a breakout campaign for the London, Ontario native, he is trailing Pacioretty in scoring despite having played significantly more games.
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That’s not to say that the deal can be declared a full win for Vegas, either. The ebbs and flows in the performance of the two men, as well as their team, speaks to the complexities of trade evaluation and how fascinating this one has been, in particular. We might just have to do this again down the line!
What do you think? Who has come out on top of this trade? Let me know in the comments below!
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.