This trade promised to be under the spotlight for some time, but it was never expected to be under this spotlight.
It took a pandemic, a realignment of the NHL’s divisions and a bevy of serendipitous circumstances for the Montreal Canadiens and Vegas Golden Knights to be meeting in a playoff series that isn’t the Stanley Cup Final, and it likely never would’ve happened if not for the players who swapped places in September 2018.
So yeah, the Max Pacioretty-Nick Suzuki trade doesn’t feel like a sideshow at this moment. It’s a main-card event — even if Pacioretty said on Sunday that he doesn’t think it makes a difference who you play in the playoffs.
There was unquestionably some truth in his comment — the Golden Knights have to go through someone, so it might as well be anyone — but we’re not convinced it’s his truth. Pacioretty was drafted by the Canadiens, played 10 years with the team, served as its captain for three seasons, and we don’t believe for a second that playing against them will mean just the same to him as playing any other team.
Neither do Pacioretty’s Vegas teammates, many of whom have suggested over the last few days that this matters a great deal to him, and neither does Brendan Gallagher, Pacioretty’s former teammate, who reminded on Sunday that “Patch went through a lot in Montreal.”
None of it was good towards the end. Pacioretty followed up a goal-less 2017 playoff with a career-low 17-goal output during the 2017-18 season. He stood at the helm of a Canadiens team that had sunk to the bottom of the NHL standings by the time it was decided he was going to be moved with a year remaining on his contract.
Pacioretty negged a deal to the Los Angeles Kings at the 2018 draft and then rode out an uncomfortable summer before Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin arrived at the Canadiens’ annual golf tournament in September and announced he had traded him to Vegas for Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick. By the time he landed in Sin City, with a four-year, $28-million contract in hand, his first comments revealed what it meant to him to be leaving all that acrimony behind him.
"I feel I have the opportunity right now to just get back to what I loved doing as a kid,” Pacioretty said, “and that's just going out there and having fun and playing hockey.”
That became impossible for New Canaan, Conn., native in Montreal. As the narrative around Pacioretty grew increasingly toxic, it overtook all the good he did for the Canadiens — the four consecutive 30-goal seasons that preceded his down year, the courageous comeback from a concussion and broken neck suffered in the horrifying 2011 collision with then-Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, the charity work he did and the way he endeared himself to the city’s people — and it had to burn him up inside.
Pacioretty is now on the precipice of his first-ever trip to the Cup Final, with the Canadiens in his way and a referendum on his value versus that of Suzuki’s to Montreal in the offing. This storyline is front and centre — especially given how integral both players have been to the success of their respective teams.
Pacioretty enters Monday’s Game 1 having obliterated the notion he was incapable of playing to his ability in the playoffs. His 31st post-season contest with the Golden Knights on Monday offers him an opportunity to build on the 14 goals and 27 points he put up over his first 30.
The 32-year-old, who missed Vegas’ first six games of these playoffs with an injury, has four goals and has scored at least a point in all seven games he’s played.
That Pacioretty scored only 10 goals and 18 points in 32 playoff games with the Canadiens played a significant role in Bergevin moving on from him, but the Golden Knights felt he was a piece that could tip them over the edge when they acquired him.
Coach Peter DeBoer feels Pacioretty’s confirmed that.
“If you watch our team this year with Max Pacioretty out of the lineup for the first six games against Minnesota, there was long stretches where we struggled to score against a big, heavy, hard playoff team,” DeBoer said on Saturday. “Max jumps back in and, for Game 7, scores. And then we play the best team in the league on paper and in the standings (the Colorado Avalanche) in the second round, and he’s a factor every night for us.”
Suzuki, who spent just a single training camp with the Golden Knights after he was drafted 13th overall in 2017, has been one nearly every night for the Canadiens, helping to justify Bergevin’s original claim that he was “the key piece” in the trade.
“We liked the upside of Nick,” Bergevin said on Saturday when he was asked to revisit the deal. “But when you look at an 18- or 19-year-old player, he’s never a finished product. There’s always steps the player needs to take in his hands to get to the next level.”
For Suzuki, that meant returning to the Ontario Hockey League, where he followed up a 100-point season with the Owen Sound Attack with a 94-point one in five less games split between the Attack and the Guelph Storm.
The London, Ont., native then led the Storm on a championship run — with a league-leading 16 goals and 42 points in 24 playoff games — and set the foundation for what he’s done in two years with the Canadiens.
“There’s players who, under pressure, will fold,” said Bergevin, “but Nick, over a very long time, has raised his game more and more with the stage getting bigger. It’s a thing, even in the Memorial Cup, when I went to see him (with Guelph) against Ottawa, he really impressed me in the big games in the way he comported himself. And that’s the same thing we’re pretty much seeing now. And Nick still has a lot of potential to get better and get to another level.
“Where he’s at today, I think he’s a player that, with the way he thinks and with his abilities, we’re really proud to have.”
Suzuki’s a player who had 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games last season and 15 goals and 41 points in 56 games in this one. He elevated his game in Montreal’s bubble run last August — scoring four goals and seven points in 10 games — and he’s doing it again with four goals and eight points in 11 games of these playoffs.
“He’s a gamer, he loves being in those big situations,” said Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot on Sunday. “I think maturity, and just the fact that he loves being on the big stage, is the reason why he’s had so much success for us.”
Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said on Saturday he felt the potential was always there for Suzuki.
“Nick has great hockey sense, so when you look at those players who have elite-level hockey sense — obviously, our own player, Mark Stone, but Paul Stastny’s career has been based on how intelligent he is — that’s what our scouts saw in Nick Suzuki,” he started. “I think the other thing with Nick is when you watch him play, the puck really comes off his stick. He can wrist-shot the puck or snap-shot the puck, it really comes off his stick. But it’s also that way when he passes the puck, and those are what I call special hands.
“He went to a situation where he got a really good opportunity and he was ready for it and has flourished.”
Surely, Suzuki had to wonder back in 2018 why the Golden Knights weren’t certain he’d be able to do the same with them in short order.
There has to be a part of him relishing the opportunity to show that was a mistake, even if he’s more interested in continuing to prove Bergevin right.
“When Marc called me and said I was a big piece that they wanted, I just wanted to show that Montreal made the right decision in bringing me over,” Suzuki said on Saturday. “I wanted to do everything I can for this franchise.”
The opportunity to help the Canadiens take their biggest step in 28 years is right in front of the 21-year-old. It’s as big as the one Pacioretty has.
It’s as if fate brought both players to this situation, because it seemed impossible they’d arrive here for any other reason.
“It’s exciting,” said Suzuki, and we wholeheartedly agree.