“He’s very intense. Very intense. I think that’s good for a short tournament like this where you want to get the best out of every player. It’s only going to be a couple weeks long that we’re together, but I think that intensity is going to be contagious. It’ll rub off on all of us.” —Max Pacioretty on John Tortorella, Summer ’16
When inscribing the name “Max Pacioretty” on the left side of his top line heading into training camp, John Tortorella reached for the faintest pencil possible and exacted about as much pressure as the Team Europe defence.
From Day One, Team USA’s head coach had been eager to see the magic his captain Joe Pavelski could summon with league MVP Patrick Kane. The third spot on a top line tasked with producing offence on a grinding squad would be up for debate.
Back in August, Pacioretty had told us he was concerned about getting “starstruck” skating beside Kane. He needed to cast those thoughts aside and just play his game.
The Habs’ top goal scorer wasn’t used on either of assistant coach Phil Housley’s blueprint power-play units (Zach Parise took his place with Kane and Pavelski), nor the penalty-killing squads in camp, despite averaging 2:55 on the power play and 1:10 on the kill with his club team.
The U.S. named seven players to its leadership group; the 27-year-old captain of the Montreal Canadiens was not one of them.
Pacioretty knew his first-line status was tenuous even before Friday’s opener, well before Tortorella called him out publicly.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Pacioretty said Friday morning of practising alongside his country’s two most prolific scorers in 2015-16. “Obviously, I don’t expect things to go perfect all the time, and I’m sure things will bounce around a bit, but it’s been a lot of fun for the first four days.”
The fun level was cranked down severely over the weekend, when USA split its pre-tournament mini series versus Canada. All told, the club registered six goals and 47 penalty minutes in the back-to-back. Kane and Pavelski combined for five points. Pacioretty factored in none of it, firing just two shots to go with his minus-1 rating.
“He’s OK, but I need more out of him. I know how he can play. This is what happens in this type of tournament and the team makeup. You’re not going to get your 20 minutes. If other people are going, they tend to take some ice time. All the top players, you look at even Canada’s team, your minutes are going to be down,” Tortorella told reporters after Saturday’s 5-2 loss in Ottawa (watch video at top of story).
Afforded scant time to develop chemistry or ride out slumps during a three-game round robin, the coach was swift to chop Pacioretty’s ice by more than four minutes, demoting him to the fourth line.
“He’s got to give me a reason to give him more minutes here. We’ll see where it goes. We know he’s a really good player, great kid, but we’ve just got to get a little bit more out of him,” Tortorella challenged. (To be fair, Tortorella was asked specifically about the 27-year-old winger.)
Pacioretty said there’s still time to reverse his coach’s evaluation, but with Tuesday’s tilt versus Finland signalling the USA’s final pre-tournament look, he needs to answer the bell now.
The forward took rushes on USA’s third line Tuesday morning alongside Ryan Kesler and T.J. Oshie, two of the team’s most intense players.
“I probably didn’t give the best first impression, and maybe that’s why I got dropped down,” Pacioretty told reporters Saturday night. “This is a team sport, and in this tournament you have to put egos to the side and do what’s best for the team, and I’m willing to do that.”
Pacioretty added this Tuesday morning: “It’s two exhibition games. Obviously, I know I need to do more. Hopefully I can improve my game for the third exhibition game.”
If the U.S. is to succeed in the next fortnight, Pacioretty must produce. Besides Kane and Pavelski, Pacioretty and late addition Kyle Palmieri are the only 30-goal scorers this team can dress. Perhaps some work on special teams—if he can get it—will make Pacioretty more visible.
And the way Team USA plays (i.e., on the edge or over it), its fate certain to rest on its ability to convert power plays and snuff them out.
“That’s where chemistry shines. These games are going to be tight, so any chance you get to pop one in on the power play or shut them down or even getting one on the penalty kill, it’s important,” Pacioretty tells us. “Special teams might come down to being the difference in the tournament, so I’m glad we’ve been focusing on it.”
Pacioretty doesn’t only have something to prove to the staff but to himself. The Canadiens’ 2015-16 collapse came under his first season as captain, and the last time he wore a USA sweater, in Sochi, he managed just one assist in five games. As was the case for the sniper at the 2008 world juniors in the Czech Republic, Pacioretty failed to score a goal and his country finished fourth.
“I’ve never had much success on the big ice. Even when I went over to play [for Switzerland’s HC Ambri-Piotta] during the lockout, it was hard to find my rhythm there. Everyone tells me I should be good on the big ice because I’m fast and skate well, but I’ve never found it. I’m excited to come in and play on an ice sheet I’m comfortable with,” Pacioretty says.
“Proving yourself on an NHL-sized rink is something we all take pride in. It’s a much different game—faster. It’s much more physical. Our team is built like that.”
Where Pacioretty will fit on his team, however, remains a question mark—and the time for tinkering is running out.
We tend to admire traits in others that we lack in ourselves. Tortorella’s intensity must rub off on Pacioretty.
Bonus Beat: Pacioretty discusses the return of teammate/temporary nemesis Carey Price
“I know he feels well from talking to him. I know he’s happy. It was definitely a tough time for him last year. The bright spot was having a baby. Not being able to do what you love, seeing everybody go to the rink and put on pads but you’re not able to? A competitor like him? I know it wore on him. He was down in the dumps often. Just to see him happy, that’s No. 1 for me. He’s a great guy and he deserves it.”