Pacioretty, Kessel, and the Fate of the Canadiens’ Captaincy

The NHL trade deadline invariably fails to live up to the relentless media hype—a casualty of cap constraints, certainly, but also a testament to the growing tendency on the part of NHL GMs to jealously guard their futures. And while this year’s deadline did see a few big names moved, it was a nothingburger in Montreal, where Marc Bergevin chose to hang on to his meagre assets, perhaps hoping they’ll command a better return come the offseason—or in Max Pacioretty’s case, next season, if the American-born winger can rediscover his scoring touch ahead of the 2019 trade deadline (a gut check wouldn’t be a bad idea, either).

The patient approach may not sit well with restless Habs fans clamouring for a shakeup tout de suite, but Pacioretty has done little this season to enhance his trade value, posting the worst offensive numbers of his career.

Still, the odds-on consensus is that the Canadiens’ Captain will – and should – be dealt.

Pacciorety’s fate, assuming he is traded, recalls Phil Kessel’s final days in Hogtown before the Leafs mercifully dispatched him to Pittsburgh. Kessel, too, had outworn his Canadian welcome, was savaged daily by the local press (Pacioretty’s treatment has been tame by comparison) and like his American counterpart seemed to be suffocating under the weight of an entire city’s expectations.

Both are products of the U.S. development program, and both came into the league at about the same time (Pacioretty a year later than Kessel). Both, by temperament, are better cast in supporting roles, with the Canadiens’ captain being by far the more mercurial of the two: In his first season with the Habs, fans will recall, a fulminating Pacioretty all but sent himself down to the minors, adding that he wasn’t coming back until he got his game straightened out. Now there’s someone who cares, I remember thinking.

Both have chafed under the media scrutiny in Canada, at times (in Kessel’s case) openly feuding with reporters; and both are proven finishers. Kessel, to his credit, has matured into a more complete player and at 30 is on pace to put up career-high helper totals. Pacioretty, primarily a gunslinger, is best served riding shotgun to someone who can spring him loose off the rush or set him up for the one-timer.

Phil The Thrill 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’s never had the good fortune of being paired with a legit number-one centerman, yet still ranks among the league’s top snipers over the past six years. Think of what he could accomplish alongside the likes of Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. But even then, Max may not be the kind of player who can thrive under those circumstances. Like Kessel, he may be better suited to playing with quality third-liners who can do the heavy lifting and get him the biscuit in the right areas to bury it.

Of the two, only Kessel has earned his playoff bona fides in the shape of two gem-encrusted Stanley Cup rings. He alone has shown the ability to consistently elevate his game on hockey’s grandest stage. Pacioretty’s career playoff numbers pale by comparison. On the ice, where it matters, and in the hearts of fans, he remains a polarizing player—which might be the fate of all streaky scorers in pressure-cooker markets like Montreal and Toronto. But there’s more to it than that: if donning the mantle of captain of an NHL hockey team means leaving it all out on the ice every night, Pacioretty does not pass the eye test.

Fortunately for the Canadiens, there happens to be a player on the roster who fits that description to a tee. So while the search for that elusive number one centerman stretches well into its third decade unabated, Habs fabs can take comfort in knowing the team’s next captain is already in the room.

Look for the little guy with the big grin, the bloodied face and the golf ball sized welt on his cheekbone.