Recently I was asked to contribute to a list of 25 Habs prospects under tha age of 25. While the top of the list fell out quite easily because it's top of mind, the middle and the bottom required some thought.
As I got to the middle portions, a lot of players who've been dormant in my mind for some time came back to the forefront. Chief among those was one-time prospect list hotshot Max Pacioretty. Big first round draft pick with rookie scoring at Michigan who makes the Habs at age 19 in a prospect averse era.
How did he ever slip down the counsciousness? What happened? And more pertinent, what is likely to happen from here?
Sound play, no scorer's touch
No matter how much the Canadiens want to will Pacioretty to become a power forward, it seems the signs so far point to a different trajectory.
Pacioretty was selected by the Habs on the back of a 21-goal campaign in the USHL at age 17. 21 goals in the USHL can go many ways (ask his undrafted Sioux City teammates). For Max it appeared to be the start of something good when he tickled the twine 15 times with the powerhouse Wolverines the next season. Still, it was prospect stuff. There were more levels at which he needed to be tested.
We know the story well from there. A goal in his first game, a few in his first week playing with Saku Koivu. He looked a keeper. but then the NHL settled on Max. He took time to work out the checking, how to get free, how to beat a goalie. I say he took time, he's taken time. The time extended through the entirety of his stint last season. No NHL scorer was Max Pacioretty at age 21.
The corroborating evidence for his less than subtle hands comes from the AHL. In 2 seasons and 60 games in total (with playoffs), Max has managed only 9 goals. That's an Andrew Conboy scoring clip.
He's more of a goals prevented than goals created type player. Over 52 games last season he created just 3.7 goals, which translated to 0.33 GC/60. Compared to top-liners who are over 1.00 GC/60, this seemss paltry. Compared to Maxim Lapierre (0.39 GC/60) who was dismal last regular season, flags go up. Goals were even scarce when he was on the ice (20 in all). He was on for about 1.8 GF/60 in all situations, with about 1.33 GF/60 at even strength. This was one of the poorest efforts on the team.
Goal prevention was different story. 1.816 GA/60 overall and 1.80 GA/60 at even strength. Max was the second best full-time player after Glen Metropolit at being stingy at even strength last season. A superb sign for a rookie.
This is not to say I don't think Pacioretty is a good player. It's just that his stats (3G, 1FA, 10SA. 14 Pts) only back up what we see. Unlike other young shooters, he more often than not shies from the shot and the selfish play and instead opts to get a head start on his backchecking assignment. It makes him a fine penalty killer and a great prospect for defensive duty from the front. The problem being that's not perhaps what the Habs expected or even wanted right away from the lanky American.
Down the depth chart
Early last fall, Max Pacioretty was poised to step in for Guillaume Latendresse after any slip. He was pencilled as high as 6th in some Habs depth charts.
His own play, the play of others, and multiple changes and additions make me think he has slipped a substantial amount.
First and foremost is the addition of Pouliot, who outstrips Pacioretty on offense by such a degree that any conversation of Max on the Gomez line starts to seem desperate. Lars Eller has been a cut above Max in the AHL, and Pacioretty's 6 NHL goals can't refute that either.
Next is the rise of Tom Pyatt. He has the coaches blessing and plays a less peripheral game. The addition of Aaron Palushaj also hurts as it seems that Aaron might actually be the USHL Michigan scorer that the Habs intended Max to be. Then there's the additions of guys like Dustin Boyd and Ian Schultz, who aren't better options yet, but aren't far.
If Max is indeed progressing on the path to being a solid defensive forward, he may slip more. This is perhaps unfair, but let's face it, it's easier to teach defense than find offense and grooming a first round pick for 3rd line wing duty for the next 10 years is more suited to the 1970s Canadiens than a team desperately in search of secondary scoring.
This is an idea I floated a long time ago on Pacioretty. Needless to say it was laughed down, but I persist. Given Pacioretty's continued demonstration of strong game awareness and his persistent refusal to look like scoring more than once a month, what about defence?
Pacioretty might be the first convert in a while to go this way on the Habs, but turning a forward to backliner is nothing new at all. Markov was once a forward, and so were countless other NHL Dmen current and past. It might take some doing, but it might also salvage an NHLer from him.
My personal opinion is that it could work, but it would be a wait and see proposition. Pacioretty is big enough and a good enough skater, but there's no telling at how he might find positioning at the back. What's more, it's possible his skills are more suited to being the third man in the shut down move than the first or second.
Still, Ithe way things are going, the Habs will be losing Dmen, have lost Fischer and McDonagh, Valentenko and in all likelihood Emelin. O'Byrne is adequate but not first pairing stuff, Weber, who knows? Beyond Subban, Gorges and Markov there's space for a young buck.
And the forward situation suits this move too. The Habs are loaded with middle talent on the wings through Hamilton and beyond. Pacioretty is a good player, but is likely replacebale via internal promotion.