Perennial 30-goal scorers, on most NHL teams, are a rare commodity to be jealously guarded. Unless your name is Max Pacioretty. The Canadiens Captain has shouldered his fair share of blame for the team’s woeful 2017-2018 season—and then some. And though he remained with the Habs following the trade deadline, there are plenty of questions concerning his short-term and long-term future with the team.
His tenure in Montreal, in some ways, is reminiscent of Phil Kessel’s final days in Hogtown, before the Leafs dispatched him to Pittsburgh. Kessel, too, had outworn his Canadian welcome, was savaged daily in the media (Pacioretty’s treatment has been tame by comparison), and like his American counterpart, he seemed to be suffocating under the weight of an entire city’s expectations.
Both players, by temperament, are better cast in supporting roles. Both have chafed under media scrutiny in Canada, at times (in Kessel’s case) openly feuding with reporters. Both are also pure finishers, the kind of players who need to be paired with strong setup men. Kessel, admittedly, has matured into a more complete player and at 30, is on pace to post career-high helper totals, while Pacioretty, primarily a gunslinger, is best served riding side-saddle to someone who can spring him loose off the rush or set him up for the one-timer.
Kessel has found a better home in the Steel City, where hockey takes a back seat to football, winning a pair of Stanley Cups while playing mostly on the third line. In Pacioretty’s defence, he has never had the good fortune of being paired with a legit number-one centre, yet he has still managed to rank among the league’s top snipers for the past six years. Think of what he could have accomplished with the likes of Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. Yet I’m not sure that Max, for all his shooting prowess, would thrive under those circumstances. Like Kessel, I’m inclined to believe, he’s better suited to playing with quality third-liners who can do the heavy lifting and get him the puck in the right areas to bury it. However, unless the Habs move him to a team with a top centre or find a way to acquire one, we won’t get to really see that theory tested.
But Kessel, until further notice, has earned his Stanley Cup bona fides in the shape of two gem-encrusted rings and shown an ability to consistently elevate his game on the biggest stage. And that’s precisely where these two players differ. While it obviously won’t happen this season with the Habs out of a playoff spot and Pacioretty likely out for the year with his lower-body injury, it will be interesting to see if he can up his postseason game and get to Kessel’s level–whether in Montreal or elsewhere.