MONTREAL — For whatever reason, it always felt like Max Pacioretty was running straight uphill in his time with the Montreal Canadiens.
From the day that he was drafted to the day that he was traded, the challenges grew steeper and exponentially so. Many of them pushed him to accomplish the greatest feats of his life, but some of them stripped away much of the joy that should come with playing a child’s game for a living.
The last chapter of Pacioretty’s story in Montreal definitely falls in the second category.
But before getting into all of that, his triumphs are worth revisiting. They are what endeared him to Canadiens fans over the years, what turned him into a perennial 30-goal scorer and a much more complete hockey player than perhaps he ever even envisioned becoming — and they ultimately saw him build up the checklist of attributes his teammates signed off on when they voted him captain in the summer of 2015.
Going back to the start of his career, the 22nd-overall pick in 2007 had left the University of Michigan after only one year and had clear designs on piercing through to the NHL immediately. And it was after only 37 games with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs that Pacioretty had seemingly managed to do it, graduating to Montreal and closing out the 2008-09 season with three goals and 11 points in 34 games with the Canadiens.
But his confidence took a considerable hit the following year when he could only muster 14 points in 52 games with the Canadiens and he was sent back down to Hamilton to play out the string.
It was in the fall of 2010 that Pacioretty’s career changed indelibly.
He arrived at Canadiens camp that year and declared that he’d be better off in the AHL if he wasn’t guaranteed top-six minutes in the NHL. And though he was initially raked over the coals in the media over that and accused of having a sense of entitlement by many of fans, it wasn’t long before people realized that Pacioretty had a pretty good sense for how his development should be managed.
Still, he had put an extra pinch of pressure on himself with his comments. So when he started in Hamilton and was promptly promoted to Montreal after leading the AHL in scoring with 17 goals and 32 points in the first 27 games of the season, it was a clear sign he wouldn’t be fazed.
The makings of a star became immediately apparent when Pacioretty joined Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta on Montreal’s top line that winter. And everything was going exceptionally well for him until a hit from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara sent him flying into a Bell Centre stanchion and left him in a world of hurt on March 8, 2011.
Pacioretty had scored 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games that season and had finally shown he was ready to be the power forward the team wanted him to be. But all of that was put in jeopardy in one horrifying instant.
Everyone anticipated the fractured vertebrae Pacioretty suffered and the concussion he sustained would eventually heal, but many people wondered if his psyche had been permanently affected by the trauma and horror of the incident. No shortage of them said he’d never be the same player again.
“They’re right,” said a fully recovered Pacioretty six weeks later. “I won’t be the same; I’ll be better than ever.”
Coming back the following year and scoring a career-high 33 goals and 65 points, earning the Bill Masterton Trophy, said a lot about Pacioretty’s character and proved he could persevere through just about anything.
He only reinforced that notion as his career progressed with the Canadiens. Whether it was a knee injury here, or a wrist injury there, or a concussion, or appendicitis, or an off-season tibia fracture which threatened to severely delay Pacioretty’s premiere as the 29th captain of the team, he always defied the odds — and the timelines — and seemingly managed to return better than ever. It was superhuman, really, earning him the nickname “Wolverine,” after Marvel Comics’ Adamantium-clawed hero.
But there were some things Pacioretty couldn’t overcome in his time in Montreal.
The perception that he couldn’t produce when the games mattered most, reinforced by an 11 per cent dip in his goal rate from regular season to playoffs, bothered him to no end, and it was something he had limited opportunity to rectify in his final years — with the Canadiens missing the post-season in 2016 and 2018.
And though Pacioretty succeeded mightily as captain off the ice, giving back to Montreal through his foundation and engaging with fans with the class and dignity the position commands, his on-ice contributions were tainted by circumstances beyond his control. The 2015-16 season was impossible to manage in star goaltender Carey Price’s 70-game absence.
Pacioretty also took too much of the blame for not scoring in the 2017 playoffs when the entire team managed only 11 goals in six games of its first-round loss to the New York Rangers. And he took too much of it last season when there wasn’t much he could do to help the team overcome its deficiencies and injuries.
Trade rumours swirling around Pacioretty for almost the entirety of last winter admittedly made it impossible for him to focus on what he had always done in a Canadiens uniform — with an underwhelming 17-goal output in 64 games serving as a memory he’d undoubtedly like to erase.
Just as he’d probably like to forget about his messy divorce from the only team he’s ever played for.
Instead Pacioretty can use it as motivation to rebound and triumph once again. With a new four-year, $28-million contract secured, and with the pressure of being captain of the most storied franchise in hockey falling off of his shoulders, there’s hope the road might flatten out for him as a Vegas Golden Knight.
Maybe he’ll even get the chance to run downhill at some point before his hockey career ends.