Max factor: Pacioretty matures into leading man on and off the ice in Montreal

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Max factor: Pacioretty matures into leading man on and off the ice in Montreal
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Max Pacioretty sits in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room when the reporters approach – cameras, microphones, notebooks, recorders. In the past, he might have stayed seated. If he weren’t scoring, he might have brooded. Now, no matter what, he makes sure he stands and speaks.

It’s a little thing. He feels almost silly acknowledging it. But it’s a conscious thing.

“People do notice things like that,” Pacioretty says away from the media scrum. “So at the end of the day, I think it is important for me to give off that image and make sure I handle myself a certain way in front of the cameras.”

Pacioretty is wearing an 'A' and killing penalties as well as leading the Habs in goals and points. (AP)
Pacioretty is wearing an 'A' and killing penalties as well as leading the Habs in goals and points. (AP)

In front of the team, too.

“Sometimes it can be a difference of attitude for your teammates,” Pacioretty says, “and you want to give off the right impressions and the right body language and set a good example as a leader.”

Pacioretty, 26, is stepping up this season literally and figuratively.

He’s scoring goals at virtually the same rate he did last season, when he scored a career-high 39. With 26 goals, he’s on pace for 38. He ranks ninth in the NHL and has nine more goals than any other Canadien – critical for a team ranked 23rd offensively at 2.57 goals per game.

He’s producing offense at his best rate ever. With 48 points, he’s on pace for a career-high 70. He has eight more points than any other Canadien. He’s also handling increased defensive and leadership responsibilities, killing penalties, protecting late leads, serving as one of four alternate captains – important for a storied team in a fishbowl with no one wearing the ‘C.’

Things are going so well, on a team with the stellar goaltending of Carey Price, he leads the league with a plus-29 rating.

“There’s always a time in your career, a stage you’ve got to go through,” says coach Michel Therrien. “The case with Patch, it’s about maturity, and it’s a process, and we’re happy with that process.”

It’s tough enough mentally to be a scorer in the NHL. But it can be tougher mentally when you’re a thoughtful guy like Pacioretty and you’re playing in a place like Montreal. You base so much of your self-esteem on whether or not the puck goes in the net. You hear lots of opinions about your performance – in French and English, from Hall of Famers to the fans.

Pacioretty had five goals and 11 points in 17 playoff games last season, when the Habs made the Eastern Conference final and lost to the New York Rangers. Guy Lafleur ripped Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek, who had five goals and 10 points.

“They can stay home if they are not willing to pay the price,” Lafleur told La Presse. “Your team is never going to win with players like them who disappear when they face adversity.”

Vanek had come to Montreal before the trade deadline and would leave as a free agent for the Minnesota Wild, having played only 35 games for the Canadiens in the regular season and playoffs combined. But Pacioretty? He was drafted by the Habs in the first round in 2007. He had spent six seasons in the organization. He had battled through adversity, too, recovering from a concussion and a fractured vertebra after the Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara hit him into a stanchion in March 2011.

Pacioretty recognizes the responsibilities that come with playing in a hockey mecca like Montreal. (USA Today)
Pacioretty recognizes the responsibilities that come with playing in a hockey mecca like Montreal. (USA Today)

Pacioretty says he “obviously wasn’t happy” when he heard about Lafleur’s comments. He never spoke to Lafleur about them. But owner Geoff Molson called him. General manager Marc Bergevin called him. Teammates called him. They all had his back, and in the end, it actually gave him confidence and motivation. Being accused of disappearing when facing adversity meant, well, he had to face more adversity.

“The same thing with my injury,” Pacioretty says. “I feel like adversity at the end of the day has made me the person and the player that I am right now. My outlook on everything is, just try to use it to make me better. I haven’t thought about it, but now that you mention it and I talk about it, maybe that situation might have been a bit of adversity that’s made me better.”

In exit interviews, Bergevin and Therrien told Pacioretty they wanted him to take a greater role defensively in 2014-15. Before the season, they gave him an ‘A’ along with Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and P.K. Subban. With former captain Brian Gionta and former alternate captain Josh Gorges gone, it was a time of transition in leadership.

Pacioretty embraced defense, especially killing penalties with Plekanec. He tries to hold onto the puck and make a play on the PK instead of icing it, creating momentum if not offense. He has found it helps him mentally.

“That’s an area that is easy to gain confidence,” Pacioretty says. “Sometimes I’m having a bad game and can’t get anything going, and I go out there on the PK and I just feel, you know … You feel almost free, like you can try anything once you get the puck. It wakes me up and gets me going for the rest of the game, so I’m thankful that I’m able to have opportunities like that to dig myself out of holes.”

Even if he doesn’t score, less of his self-esteem comes from goals.

“When it comes to scoring, you’re never … There’s always peaks and valleys, you know?” he says. “But I think I’m more confident that I’m contributing to the team, and that might lead to more confidence in other areas.”

''I’m more confident I’m contributing to the team and that leads to more confidence in other areas.'' (AP)
''I’m more confident I’m contributing to the team and that leads to more confidence in other areas.'' (AP)

That has helped him lead. In Montreal, people study players. What did they say? What did they do? What does it mean? In NHL dressing rooms, players study their teammates, too, especially the ones with letters on their sweaters. If you put your head down and stay quiet when you’re struggling, if you sulk or slam your stick, it will be noticed and dissected.

So stand up. Say the right things. Do the right things. Make sure no one gets the wrong idea.

“It’s not like I was doing or saying the wrong things before,” Pacioretty says. “But things can get taken out of context pretty easily when people are speculating on what you’re saying or how you’re feeling or your body language. I think just knowing that when I’m around the rink and on the ice and on the bench that there’s probably always a camera or a mic around, so just be … Just know that someone’s always watching.”

And just know who matters most – your bosses, your teammates.

“The thing that I like most about my development is that I’ve gotten better every year, and I’ve communicated with the management and the coaches through it all,” Pacioretty says. “I’ve kind of reached their expectations of what they want from me but at the same time know that every year I can get better and better. … There’s definitely a lot more responsibility that I’ve had this year, and I’m taking it with confidence and with honor. It’s an honor to play so many roles on this team and with this franchise.”

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