Max Pacioretty: Mr. Right Choice Or Just Mr. Right?
Let me preface all that I'm about to write by telling you: I realize the Montreal Canadiens players voted for this. I realize that as an outsider it's hard to question their motives or their mindset on it. But I'm still going to say it: The Canadiens players made a right choice for captain in Max Pacioretty. But it wasn't the right choice.
What do I mean exactly? Well, this really depends on how you view the subject. Coming from the viewpoint of the Habs' dressing room — seemingly not unique in the NHL for its makeup — it makes sense they'd go with Pacioretty. A young but prominent voice off the ice and a leading example on it, he exemplifies the tried-and-true qualities NHL teams admire when selecting a captain. He's polite, non-controversial and sticks to the cliches we are oh so used to hearing.
We saw the same conservative approach when the Maple Leafs opted for Dion Phaneuf a few years ago. He's become a vilified presence not just for his play but for captaining the heavily scrutinized Leafs on top of it. He fit the bill for a typical NHL team that wants a generally bland player to take the same polite, non-controversial method of dealing with the media. Dion has fit that to a tee but paid for it. The Leafs' awfulness since that decision has brought more than the fair share of criticism onto Phaneuf who, ultimately, was not the biggest reason for the team's struggles. He did however make a symbolic target in the eyes of Toronto's fans and media alike. Still, who picked him as captain and signed him to a crazy ("market value") 7-year, $49 million deal in the first place? Team management, of course (Leafs fans can thank Brian Burke — now long gone to Calgary — and his trusty lackey Dave Nonis).
The only difference with the Pacioretty decision is Marc Bergevin stopped layering on the praise and slavish worship of his new captain at a point where Burke would only be halfway done. At the introductory presser and during harsh criticism that followed, "Burkie" did everything but call Phaneuf the next Mother Teresa in an aggressive defence of the embattled blueliner.
Pacioretty steps into a bit of a friendlier situation than Phaneuf did, but one no less pressure-packed. It's a different kettle of fish in Montreal where Cup contention has become expected after recent playoff success that stands out compared to the prior two decades of first round-and-out doldrums. Pacioretty obviously is a fellow who his teammates like and feel comfortable with as their spokesman, through good or bad. And believe me, the bad will be rough — even for a top flight scoring winger like "Patches." He will be blamed not just for his own shortcomings but those of the team in general. Such is the life of the man wearing the "C" for the vaunted CH.
Already, smatterings of grumbling can be heard on a variety of issues with this selection. Let's summarize them by starting with the traditional one: The fact he's not Quebecois and doesn't speak French (big surprise!). While Max has begun to take the customary French classes and apparently one of his grandmothers was French-Canadian it's not quite enough for some.
Now look, the fans love anyone in Le Tricolore who produces and gives his 100%. Let that be known. It's typically never been a significant part of the fanbase complaining about the lack of mother tongue spoken, but always certain media muckrakers or political figures trying to make the language issue with the franchise into some life or death matter. They ruin it for all. That the Habs haven't had a French-Canadian captain — or a Canadian one for that matter — since Vincent Damphousse in 1999 very much irks this segment of La Belle Province to no end.
Another criticism about picking Pacioretty is that he has come up short in the playoffs. After all, 10 goals in 32 playoff games is OK for your average Second- or Third-liner but not quite up to the standards of his regular seasons (he's averaged close to a goal every two games since 2010-11). However, Pacioretty's 5 goals and 7 points in 11 GP last year stood head and shoulders above the rest of the goal-starved squad that got bounced in six by the Lightning in the East's Second round. It was nothing legendary but hardly worse compared to the rest of the expected scorers for Montreal; Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk, David Desharnais, Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelley accounted for only 5 goals combined. But In reality, his 2015 playoff effort was actually pretty impressive considering Pacioretty missed the final week of the season and Game One of the First round due to a concussion — one of the most difficult injuries to effectively return from..
Yet the narrative of Pacioretty the passionless choker seems to persist, sometimes from those close to the team. It's an unfair narrative considering there are far worse playoff performers among elite scorers — even on his own team. Plekanec has consistently pulled disappearing acts come spring time, Galchenyuk has yet to find his game in post-season play and Pacioretty's old buddy from back in their AHL days at Hamilton, Little Davey Desharnais, has been near useless when the post-season comes around. Logging puzzlingly serious PP time and 1st line minutes for far too long, Double D owns a pathetic 3 goals in 38 career playoff games. Plus one of those was into an empty net and just 1 one was even strength. Oh but he's just focused on being a set-up man for his friend Patches and others, right? Wrong. His playoff assist total (10) isn't all that much better.
But the Laurier-Station native and former Chicoutimi Sagueens junior star has been handed several chances and the management who insist on overplaying him get off the hook from the media a bit too much. Even the notorious tough love tactics of head coach Michel Therrien seems to skip the 5’6" undrafted DD (2015-16 could be the end of that road though, as the Canadiens pledge to permanently use 2012's third overall pick Galchenyuk at centre and stick Desharnais on the wing). Perhaps Pacioretty has been stumping for Desharnais. They're tight buddies, after all. For all we know, Pacioretty could have been using his stature/clout on the team to give the diminutive forward far more rope than he ever deserved with a team that consistently struggles for offence. If so, he should know better and that isn't the favouritism to friends that fans want out of their captain.
And that gets to another criticism, only slightly relevant to being captain but relevant nonetheless: Pacioretty is injury-prone. The amazing thing is, since his infamous near-death experience in 2011 via Zdeno Chara and a stantion, Max has persevered to miss just 20 games over the past four seasons despite a variety of ailments (concussion, strained left hamstring, left wrist injury, upper body injury, appendectomy). Even now, he's slated to potentially miss the start of the regular season after a knee injury during off-ice training in early July. Still, it's hard to be too cruel to a guy whose teams have — in all but one season (2012-13) — never been top ten in offence, but he has still managed to pump out goal totals of 14 (in 37 GP), 33, 15 (in 44 GP), 39 and 37 these past five seasons. In fact, starting with the first season after his broken neck (2011-12) his 124 goals are fifth most in the NHL — barely behind Joe Pavelski (125), Cory Perry (128) then further back of Steven Stamkos (157) and Alex Ovechkin (174).
While goals aren't everything and his point totals aren't as sexy, one could imagine on a more stacked team he'd be picking up a few more goals and a lot more assists. And anyway his defence has come around, partly evidenced by a league high +38 rating in 2014-15. As it is, by taking on this captain's honour Pacioretty now has more of an open invitation to suffer the slings and arrows of the often ruthless sports media that tends to be quicker to judge a player based on their proximity away from the province of Quebec. All this and one can only imagine the potential vitriol he'd get if he was being paid a king's ransom a la PK Subban. Pacioretty is in the midst of a truly incredible bargain level deal which has four more years left but only pays him $4.5 million a year. The deal seemed a little low at the time it was signed in August 2012 by a freshly minted Bergevin and now seems practically like highway robbery.
This gets me to the last main criticism being levied and perhaps the most relevant to his selection: The choice should have been P.K. Subban. That chorus was a vocal one even before a week ago when Subban stunned the hockey and philanthropic world with a $10 million donation to the Montreal Children's Hospital. While the highly charitable act — to use the clinical and cynical viewpoint — makes for a good tax write-off for his accountant to deal with, it doesn't change the fact it was a classy gesture in an off-season where NHL players past and present were getting arrested left, right and centre. In one of the most tumultuous off-seasons for the image of NHL'ers as full of decent, law-abiding, clean-living citizens, Subban's act — purportedly the largest philanthropic donation by an athlete in the history of Canada — offered a shining beacon of hope.
While most of that cash was fundraised, it was done primarily through PK's efforts and stands as an incredible goodwill effort that Subban himself said was his way of giving back to the city, the fans and the Habs organization for their investment in him (a groundbreaking eight-year, $72 million deal signed in 2014 that dwarfs that of the man who got the C instead of him). Subban has been known for his willingness to give back to the community in Montreal and in his native Toronto, but this one took it to a whole new level that even earned the praise of those who don't care for hockey. The news spread beyond the sports headlines too. Many commended Subban on the humility and graceful perspective of his words when addressing the donation — one that garnered him his own namesake on an atrium in the hospital. It's quite amusing to see the love for a change being showered upon a normally flamboyant pest who makes the blood of opposing fans boil with his gregarious, trash-talking, trolling antics on the ice.
Now sure, there are factions in the hardcore fanbase out there that wanted the "C" stitched to the jersey of Andrei Markov — a steadying force on the blueline and on the power play for 15 years now — but his age (37 as of December) makes that look like more of a short-term investment. Others wanted 10 year veteran Tomas Plekanec. But with the issues a salary cap can cause and him approaching UFA status next summer it's possible he will be traded before ever getting through the season. An outside candidate, Brendan Gallagher, will end up settling for an "A" on his chest anyhow — alongside the aformentioned Subban, Markov and Plekanec. But if you want to know who won't get the "C" but truly is the captain of this team? Look no further than Carey Price. Few goalies since Dominik Hasek in the 90s have enjoyed a two year period as wildly successful as this man. Tim Thomas or Jonathan Quick make good cases with their Conn Smythe drives but Price can point to an unprecedented four award haul (Jennings, Vezina, Hart, Lindsay) in 2014-15 and in the middle of 2013-14 played shutdown goaltending to help deliver a Gold Medal for Canada at the Sochi Olympics.
Price has also developed a Patrick Roy-esque knack for inspiring confidence from his mates while demonstrating rare (for a goalie) leadership on and off the ice. His methods are a little mellower and likely more popular with his teammates than Roy's sometimes selfish cockiness did. But until Stanley Cups arrive, no one's judging their hockey careers on who was the nicer dude. Plus, after Roberto Luongo's captaincy experiment, the taste for making a goalie captain has soured. So Pacioretty is captain in name but perhaps not in spirit. But what about that choice? Did the Habs dressing room make the right one? Well, as I said, they made a right choice. But PK Subban would have been the right choice. See where I'm going with this? Ok, so you may think heaping that distinction on a guy who's already expected to be one of the league's better defenders, who is the highest paid D-man and who attracts haters with his on-ice swagger is a bit too much? If anyone has shown they can handle this pressure and thrive off of it, it's Subban. Competition and flourishing in the face of adversity seem to coarse through his veins and aid him at every obstacle in his career.
Based on his charity donation speech, he also gets it that hockey is a part of his life, part of who he is, but not what defines him as a person. That clear-headed vision would be welcome to find in any NHL captain. And with that charismatic personality, that ability to joke around, find light-heartedness in an often super serious sport with dull, robotic talking heads? That sells itself. He's one of the few who on and off the ice will say something clever or witty once in a while. Plus being one of the few visible NHL'ers of African descent on top of that makes Subban one of the most personable, marketable people out there in hockey and Canada in general. To tie that with being captain of the storied Canadiens seems all too good to be true, no? Well yes it was too good to be true and in the end, this was an in-house vote so perhaps the maturation wasn't all the way there for Subban in the minds of many teammates. After all, his intensity has often spilled over into practice and led to intra-squad fights. To his credit, Pacioretty has never been seen to drop the gloves with a teammate that way. And therein lies why his popularity with them might just have been what got him the deciding edge over PK.
As it is, Subban has one fewer thing on his plate to worry about — though I doubt he views the captaincy as a worry. He most likely deep down wanted that and had vouched for it in the past. Some suggested his $10M donation was an audition for captain! Subban certainly wouldn't have been opposed to being named captain. One must realize how he not only doesn't shy away from attention and responsibility, he craves it. Something tells me PK Subban could have handled it quite easily. This is a guy who enjoys being "The Man." And even the media in Montreal has warmed up to him though fans almost never stopped loving the guy from Day 1. At first, there truly was a load of criticism for certain aspects of his attitude and behavior. Many in the hockey world sided with management every time Jacques Martin, Randy Cunneyworth (remember him!? Habs fans try not to) or Michel Therrien engineered a benching, demotion or healthy scratching. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger though, and if PK Subban could survive the ravenous buzzards of the Montreal media to get here? He sure as hell could survive being named the 29th captain in Canadiens history. And perhaps if Pacioretty doesn't figure into the long-term future of the Habs someday, Subban will surely be next in line.