TORONTO — Real-life Max Pacioretty is manipulating digitized Max Pacioretty with his thumbs. In what could perhaps serve as foreshadowing to opening night of the 2014-15 NHL season, the left wing crashes the Toronto crease and slips the puck past Maple Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
Elated, Pacioretty—the virtual one—spins round and thrusts his arms roofward in celebration. It’s then you notice his wardrobe malfunction.
The NHL 15 incarnation of Pacioretty has a “C” plastered on the left of his Montreal Canadiens sweater.
Was awarding the forward with Montreal’s vacant captaincy simply a harmless glitch that slipped through the cracks of EA Sports’ development squad? Or do the video-game makers know something we don’t?
“I think someone at EA Sports deserves a promotion for doing that,” a smiling Pacioretty says Thursday at the brand’s media unveiling of the hockey franchise’s latest edition.
NHL 15 is rightfully being praised for its down-to-the-letter realism, and if Pacioretty were to have his way, that authenticity would include his succeeding Brian Gionta and becoming the 29th captain of the NHL’s most decorated club.
“Of course,” Pacioretty says when Sportsnet asks if he wants the ‘C’ this season. ”There’s a lot of guys on the team who feel like they could be a good captain, and that’s a good thing. Whoever is named captain is going to have a lot of help. When you have that surrounding of a lot of leaders in the group, it makes it easier on the person who wears the C.”
With Gionta, 35, signing as free agent to the Buffalo Sabres and vocal veteran defenceman Josh Gorges, 30, shuffling off there via trade, space has been cleared in the dressing room of the Eastern Conference finalists for a fresh crop of leaders charging into their prime. At the forefront of that emerging group are Pacioretty, 25; gold-medal goaltender Carey Price, 27; and 2013 Norris winner P.K. Subban, 25, who inked a monster eight-year, $72-million extension this summer.
All three are locked up for a minimum of four more years. All three are coming off arguably their best full NHL campaigns, Pacioretty scoring a career-best 39 goals and adding another 11 points during the Habs’ inspiring 17-game playoff run.
The Connecticut native is eager to assume a leadership role on the Canadiens, something he got a taste of when he wore the ‘A’ for a spell last season when Gorges went down to injury.
Pacioretty points to not only Gionta but his first NHL captain, the beloved Saku Koivu, for improving his game and his outlook on responsibility.
“They were both very different in the way they led, but you want to take the best from everybody and tie it into yourself,” he says. “Gio was more of an actions-speak-louder-than words type of guy. Every captain has their own style, and his worked well with our team. We went to the conference finals twice with Gio as the captain, and overachieved a couple times.”
As a rookie in 2008-09, Pacioretty only skated 34 games with Koivu — the kid bounced back and forth from the Habs’ farm team — but the wise Finn made a heck of an impression in a brief period of time.
“He gave me some really nice talks that will stick with me throughout my career. He was definitely more vocal [than Gionta]. He made a point to take me in and work with me on stuff. He liked to have fun as well; he joked around. Gio’s more of a serious person,” Pacioretty explains.
“It’s tough to stick in the NHL. Coming out of college, you kinda play the same way you have your whole life, and Saku spoke to me about what areas of the ice to go to, times in the game to make the risky play and when to play it safe. It sounds like little things, but they go a long way. Your teammates really [judge] you on making the right decisions on the ice, and I think I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone on.”
Pacioretty’s stats and confidence have risen on parallel trajectories. And although he’s spoken to his friend Subban and management about the need for new leadership in Montreal, it’s more of an understanding. A quiet message sent loudly to the team’s leading sniper and its No. 1 defenceman when Gorges and Gionta left town.
“We need younger leaders to step up now and really take control of the team,” Pacioretty says. “I’m willing to do that and ready to do that.”