Hurricanes Add Proven Veteran Scorer in Pacioretty

Now that the dust has settled a bit on a wild opening to free agency, the Metropolitan Division looks even more hellacious than, well, it basically always has been in recent years. On paper, many teams got better with players like Dylan Strome heading to Washington, Vincent Trocheck to the New York Rangers, and even Johnny Gaudreau shocking the hockey world and leaving Calgary for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then there’s the Philadelphia Flyers… at least they got Tony DeAngelo, I guess?

However, the biggest splash arguably came from the Carolina Hurricanes, adding two bona fide stars (albeit aging ones) that, on paper, make the team look significantly more formidable. In addition, they made two depth pickups that look like sneaky-good upside plays, as well. The team managed to do so while giving up very few assets, and still have some avenues for improvement if they get creative moving forward. There is still plenty of time left in the offseason, after all.

With those new players in town, this team is going to look a bit different on opening night. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, as some significant flaws were exposed in their second round loss to the Rangers. These moves really seem to have those concerns in mind, and could play a big role in the Hurricanes potentially taking the next step in 2022-23. So, today we’ll begin a series looking at the four newest acquisitions, what role they’re likely to play, and how their presence affects the lineup as a whole (and individually, in some cases). First up is one of the NHL’s better snipers of the last decade, Max Pacioretty.

What Pacioretty Has Done

Drafted in the first round, 22nd overall, by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Pacioretty almost immediately made his mark on Les Habitants’ lineup. After one year of NCAA hockey at the University of Michigan, he played in 34 NHL games as a 19-year-old. He mostly flipped back and forth between the American Hockey League (AHL) and NHL the next few years, but broke out during the 2011-12 season, scoring 33 goals and 65 points. From that point on, he was one of the more consistent goal scorers in hockey.

In 2015-16, Pacioretty was named the captain of the Canadiens. He played for three seasons with the “C” on his sweater in Quebec, before the Vegas Golden Knights made the high-profile trade for him in the summer of 2018. His play certainly did not fall off there, as over four seasons he scored 95 goals in 224 games with his new team. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound winger can beat opponents with power forward moves or his skill game, and, despite his size and the willingness to play a heavy game, he’s received Lady Byng Trophy votes five times in his career (for “player who exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability”). He also took home the Bill Masterton Trophy in 2011, awarded for perseverance and sportsmanship.

Max Pacioretty
Max Pacioretty during his time with the Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In addition to his 323 total regular season goals, six 30-goal seasons, and six All-Star appearances, Pacioretty has produced nicely in the postseason as well – especially while in Vegas. He had five goals and 11 points in 13 games in the 2021 postseason, and 30 points in 36 total playoff games with the Golden Knights. Still, it’s far from just numbers and pedigree that he’s going to bring to the table for his new team in Carolina.

What Pacioretty Has to Offer the Hurricanes

There were plenty of areas to place the blame for the Hurricanes falling short in the playoffs, but none were bigger than their blatant lack of finishing ability. Now, there’s nothing easy about scoring on Igor Shesterkin, but in what was a pretty evenly-matched series, it largely came down to the Rangers’ stars executing and capitalizing, while the Hurricanes’ did not. Carolina has a significant amount of talent in their lineup, to be sure, but there were far too many games where they “did everything but score”, simply peppering the goalie (or the glass/boards behind him) with dangerous shots that never found the twine. Something had to be done here to supplement the forward group.

Safe to say, that mission was accomplished. In taking advantage of the Golden Knights’ inexplicably bad cap management, the Hurricanes were able to pry away the high-end sniper that the team sorely needed in Pacioretty. Now, there is at least some cause for concern about what the 33-year-old will have to offer in 2022-23. For one, well, his age. He has played a heavy, interior-focused game that has caused a lot of punishment in his 14 NHL seasons. He’s missed 51 games the last two years – 43 of those in 2021-22 – and time due to injury every season since 2016-17. That is reason enough to be at least a bit cautious when calling the Hurricanes surefire Cup contenders after his acquisition.

Related: Golden Knights Trade Pacioretty & Coghlan to Hurricanes

Now, with that out of the way – what a steal of a move, and an absolutely perfect fit for the Hurricanes. This is a player that’s basically scored at a 0.5 goals-per-game pace the last few years (or, put another way, a 40-goal pace), so it’s not like the injuries have caused his production to slip much at all. Pacioretty is a net-front presence, has a great shot, and has some of the best hands in tight spaces in the league. He simply knows how to put the puck in the net, whether that’s through his size and strength or sheer craftiness. It’s easy to imagine placing him on the top line alongside playmakers Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and letting him absolutely feast on the chances those two will create.

The above clip does a pretty good job of portraying one of my favorite parts of Pacioretty’s game: he is a highly instinctual goal scorer. We’ve mentioned his propensity for using the interior of the ice to position himself for scoring chances, but he simply has that knack for finding a soft spot that creates just a sliver of space to allow a pass to sneak through and a quick release for a goal. Oftentimes despite defenders thinking they have him in their pocket, well-covered, he reads the play and positions himself well enough that this is not the case. Even when he doesn’t find those grade-A chances, he still has the kind of pure shooting ability that allows him to pick corners and beat goalies cleanly, even from a distance. Again, it’s easy to see this package fitting well with the elite playmakers in the Hurricanes’ forward group.

It seems rather baffling that there wasn’t one team in the league willing to give something up, even if it was just a late-round pick, for a goal scorer of his caliber – especially with only one year left on his contract. I suppose the Golden Knights did have some incentive, as the cap space enabled them to re-sign alternate captain Reilly Smith, among others, but this was a phenomenal move by general manager (GM) Don Waddell either way. The payoff a player acquired for what truly amounts to no return could help this trade go down as one of the best in franchise history – if things play out as Pacioretty and his new team are hoping, that is.

Pacioretty himself seemed pretty clear on where the Hurricanes had an obvious need, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the exact reason they acquired him: to put the puck in the back of the net.

A Unique Impact on a Young, Talented Team

This move has pretty much secured a rock-solid top-six for the Hurricanes next season. Things are obviously subject to change, and there are some questions still up in the air such as whether or not Martin Necas will return, or if any young players push to make the team. Still, those questions seem more geared towards the bottom six, anyway. Pacioretty brings an element that isn’t really present in the current Hurricanes lineup, as a majority of the top players were still on the young side, and heavily leaned towards playmaker over goal-scorer.

A nice bonus is that this addition basically assures Jesperi Kotkaniemi of having some big-time talent on his wing during his expected ascension into a full-time top-six role, whether that be Teravainen, Pacioretty, or Andrei Svechnikov (or that Seth Jarvis kid, he isn’t too bad either). A healthy Pacioretty will significantly lengthen the lineup by default, and allow players to stick in roles they are most comfortable within. This, of course, is the easiest way to get the most out of a player – let them focus on what they do best. So, while Pacioretty is expected to provide a significant lift to the team, the true impact of his arrival will likely extend well beyond his individual production.

Max Pacioretty Vegas Golden Knights
Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Incidentally, Pacioretty should help a stagnant power play and make things easier by opening things up for everyone on the ice. He is a serious threat and net-front presence that will have to have significant attention paid to him at all times. Finally having that sort of player for the goal line and blue paint will free up space for the significant talent that already exists on the Hurricanes’ power play (and forward lines in general) to operate. At this point, the team almost has to improve on the man advantage, because there are so many players who can burn their opponents if they don’t have sufficient attention paid to them. You can’t cover five guys completely with four after all… which is why it has been so frustrating to watch them allow other teams do it so frequently in recent years.

Ultimately, there are no sure things in the NHL, so there’s surely a scenario where something falls short after this deal and things don’t go according to plan. On the bright side, being that Pacioretty is an unrestricted free agent next season, it’s essentially a no-risk move. The Hurricanes aren’t totally up against the salary cap as of now, and it’s not like his presence totally precludes them from making any necessary additions either over the remainder of the summer or in-season. In that regard, the reward-to-risk ratio is colossal.

Improved goal-scoring, check. Improved power play, likely check (especially in conjunction with the other marquee addition in Brent Burns). Additional veteran leadership, check. And all this done at a cheap price? As in, like, nothing? Double- and triple-check. This deal is a huge win for the Hurricanes and GM Waddell, and, on paper, the Hurricanes look like a much more dangerous team than they did a few months ago. It’ll be a lot of fun to see how these moves pay off when the season gets going in October.

As previously stated, this is just the first in a series profiling the newest Hurricanes. There is plenty more to get into, as we look at who was acquired, why they were likely targeted, and the sort of impacts they are likely to have on the lineup. Next up will be Jaccob Slavin’s new defense partner and expected power play quarterback in hulking defenseman Brent Burns. See you then!