Max Pacioretty wasn’t playing in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but he still had a game-night routine. He would flop on the couch, snacks in hand, and flip on the television early enough to catch the greatest spectacle of the postseason: the Vegas Golden Knights‘ pregame festivities.
“I was 100 percent cheering for Vegas. They changed the game, in terms of entertainment, style of play and how they went about their business. Hopefully a lot of teams piggyback off that,” he said. “We all talk in the league. Everyone said the same thing about playing here and how nice it would be.”
As it turned out, Pacioretty will have a chance to play in Vegas. The Montreal Canadiens traded their captain to the Golden Knights in September. Six hours after they agreed in principle on that transaction, he signed a four-year, $28 million extension with Vegas that kicks in next season.
“We couldn’t have done the deal if the extension didn’t happen,” GM George McPhee said.
Last season, the Golden Knights were a team born of circumstance. The expansion draft was filled with players who were available because the draft’s rules forced teams to jettison talent they’d otherwise have liked to keep, but the draft was also filled with players whose time in other cities had simply come to an end.
Pacioretty certainly fits in that latter category. In 2015, he was voted Canadiens captain by his teammates. Two years later, according to owner Geoff Molson, he asked for a trade out of Montreal. His unhappiness was evident in his output: After six straight seasons scoring at a 30-goal pace, Pacioretty had 17 goals and 20 assists in 64 games last season. Entering the final year of his contract on a Canadiens’ team entering a rebuild, the 29-year-old winger was as good as gone.
“You never know what transpired there. It was time for a change,” McPhee said. “You knew he was going to be traded. We had a real need. Sometimes for certain players, it’s a want. Well, this was a need for us. We felt he could come here and play his game — not have the burden of being the captain.”
The Vegas players called themselves the “Golden Misfits” last season because they were unprotected by their former teams, thrown together in the desert and then completely underestimated by the hockey world.
Does Max Pacioretty consider himself a Golden Misfit now, too?
“I think so,” he told ESPN recently. “I took a lot of heat last year. I think I fit in with the misfit persona.”
The fit was the key for McPhee. For example, Pacioretty knew Vegas coach Gerard “Turk” Gallant from their days in Montreal, where he was an assistant coach under Michel Therrien from 2012 to ’14.
“We talked when he was in Florida, and then when he had the year off we spoke for a bit,” Pacioretty said. “You can look up the quotes: When he left Montreal, we missed him a lot. He’s a guy who holds people accountable, but at the same time, he makes it a good environment to help guys succeed. That’s what you saw here last season. He’s one of the guys that hasn’t forgotten what it was like to play.
“It was the cherry on top [in signing with Vegas] . It was good to get back on the phone with him and hear him chirp me a bit.”
But there was another fit that Pacioretty liked: the one with Paul Stastny, the veteran center who signed a three-year, $19.5 million free-agent deal in the summer. They had played together on a line at world championships and during the 2014 Winter Olympics on Team USA.
Well, when they did play.
“There were times when we’d go down to, like, two lines, so we were on the bench at the Olympics just shooting the s— the whole time. We bonded there,” Stastny said. “He’s easy to play with. Talks a lot out there, which he doesn’t have to. In the couple of times we’ve played together, it feels like he’s used to playing in another system. But the way I want him to play is for him to play his game, and I just read off that. That’s a lot easier for me. Play with speed. Don’t think. I’ll look for those guys with speed.”
Don’t think. Talk to enough elite scorers, and they’ll uniformly tell you this is how they want to play. Just have the game come naturally. It’s something that drew Pacioretty to Vegas, having watched how Gallant coached his system.
“They play a fast game. When they selected the players on the team last year, they made sure every player could skate,” he said. “That’s when I’ve had success — when every player on the team plays fast. I feel like I’m not thinking out there because we do play fast. It’s a lot of fun.”
Stastny also found that tempo addictive, having played the Golden Knights last season as a member of the St. Louis Blues and the Winnipeg Jets, who were defeated by the Knights in the Western Conference finals.
“They maybe outplayed us. They play the same way, all four lines. You knew it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t a one-headed monster. Different guys coming at you, wave after wave,” Stastny said. “They’d have the better chances against teams. When I see that, I don’t think that’s a fluke. Even if a guy doesn’t have as high a shooting percentage as last year, he’s still creating chances. So that’s not a fluke.”
The Golden Knights weren’t a fluke last season, but there’s still a chance they might have been an anomaly. It was a perfect storm of catalysts that inspired their run to the Stanley Cup Final, from the defiant “Golden Misfits” rallying cry to the immediate bond they established with the city following the Oct. 1 shooting tragedy on the Strip to the mysteries of the “Vegas Flu.” A lot of things went right during their improbable inaugural campaign, resulting in both division and conference titles.
“Well, there were a lot of things that didn’t go our way last year, too,” McPhee said. “Our schedule wasn’t great. We were third or fourth in the league in man-games lost. We have lots to prove.”
And there’s room for improvement. This was the impetus for McPhee to add Pacioretty and Stastny to the Golden Knights’ second line after David Perron and James Neal weren’t re-signed. Those two players put up startlingly good offensive numbers with the Knights last season; Perron, for example, had the highest points-per-game average of his 10-year NHL career (0.94). But McPhee wasn’t completely happy with that line’s results.
“That line was dead last [in 2017-18] in goals against per 60, so we had to change the mix somehow,” he said. “That had to be addressed. Analytically, when you look at things, and you’re looking at improving your team … you can look the other way and hope it improves, or you can do something about it.”
He added two veteran star players to his team, signing them both for multiple seasons. The results aren’t there quite yet, as Pacioretty, Stastny and Erik Haula have yet to produce a goal at even strength through three games, and Stastny will miss some time early this season with a lower-body injury. But McPhee is confident that they’ll produce them, as he’s confident that the Golden Knights are going to contend for the Stanley Cup again in their sophomore season as a franchise.
“I don’t think that this team is going to take a step back,” he said.
Even if, with the addition of Pacioretty and Stastny to a defending conference finalist, the “Golden Misfits” aren’t exactly the underdogs anymore.
“I think that disappeared pretty quickly last season,” McPhee said.