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Max Pacioretty May Be the Most Underrated Star in the NHL

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistNovember 30, 2015

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 20:  Max Pacioretty #67 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the warmup period prior to the NHL game against the St. Louis Blues at the Bell Centre on October 20, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Canadiens defeated the St. Louis Blues 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Alex Ovechkin. Steven Stamkos. Joe Pavelski. That’s the complete list of players with more goals than Max Pacioretty since his big breakout season in 2011-12.

It’s a list notable by its absences. Five of the league’s last six Hart Trophy winners have been forwards; only one of those, Ovechkin, has scored more goals than Pacioretty. Corey Perry is neck-and-neck with Pacioretty but has played five fewer games and comes up one goal short; Evgeni Malkin’s absences have been more frequent, and he’s 15 goals back.

The star power sitting behind Pacioretty on the goals list is stunning. Dynamic duos such as Perry and Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin in Dallas and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago are all behind him—in some cases well back. Sidney Crosby isn’t even close; John Tavares is but sits a touch back.

Pacioretty scoring against the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.
Pacioretty scoring against the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Pacioretty is a goal-scoring machine, though he’s rarely accorded the respect granted to lesser scorers. He tallied 76 goals in the last two seasons and has never finished higher than fourth on the league’s All-Star ballot at left wing.

It’s not like all Pacioretty does is score, either. He contributes in ways guaranteed to please both new-wave analytics types and more old-school assessors.

Modern analytics generally focus on shot metrics, with the reason being players who drive results will generally help their teams outshoot, out-chance and outscore the opposition and that we should see that help in their on-ice numbers. Pacioretty’s totals are brilliant; for virtually the entirety of his career, he has dramatically outperformed Montreal’s team average, whether we’re measuring Corsi or high-danger scoring chances.

He plays a regular role on the penalty kill and has done for years, being trusted to do quality work in the defensive zone for the Habs. He’s 6’2” and 213 pounds and engages physically, routinely ranking among the club leaders in hits. Among Canadiens forwards this year, only Brendan Gallagher has more blocked shots at five-on-five—an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact the puck is more often than not in the opposition end of the rink when Pacioretty is on the ice.

Nor is Pacioretty paid like an NHL star. His cap hit is a relatively modest $4.5 million, and his contract runs through the summer of 2019; it’s an absolute steal for the Montreal Canadiens. Incredibly, just over a year ago, CBC’s Mike Dennis singled it out as the worst contract on the team:

While 39 goals is nothing to sneeze at, Mad Max is signed for the next five years and seems to have a bad season every other year. His goal totals the last four years are 39, 15, 33 and 14—although when he plays a full season he usually produces.

It was a clueless assessment. That 14-goal campaign came in 2010-11—Pacioretty played only 37 games as he had to work his way up from the minors. The 15-goal campaign was in 2012-13, a year which was infamously cut almost in half by an NHL lockout.

Pacioretty and frequent linemate David Desharnais celebrate a goal.
Pacioretty and frequent linemate David Desharnais celebrate a goal.Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

As invalid as that assessment was, it was only possible because Pacioretty somehow doesn’t have the reputation around the hockey world a player of his ability generally has. He scores goals, he hits, he blocks shots and he’s trusted in the defensive zone. There aren’t many players around the league who can boast all that and few who fly as under-the-radar as Pacioretty does.

It’s also worth noting he’s done it while mostly playing with either Tomas Plekanec or David Desharnais down the middle; both are fine players, but neither is an overpowering offensive juggernaut.

Just for good measure, in September, he was voted by his teammates as Montreal’s captain. NHL.com’s Arpon Basu noted Pacioretty’s opening comments came in French, a concession to the market former captains Saku Koivu and Brian Gionta didn’t make. Pacioretty explained to Basu why that was important to him:

This is my home now; me and my family take it very seriously. We call Montreal home and this is a big part of the culture. We understand that. So I've been getting classes for a year, and this should motivate me and my family to do even more. I hope to do so. I don't think I'm going to be perfect overnight, but I'm going to do the best I can.

There are some signs Pacioretty’s profile around the league may be improving. Every fall, TSN polls NHL general managers, along with their own experts, to find out the top 50 players in hockey. For the first time, Pacioretty found himself included on the list, ranked No. 32 overall.

It’s a positive first step for a brilliant two-way forward who is also one of the most lethal scorers in hockey.

Statistics courtesy of NHL.comHockey-Reference.com and war-on-ice.com.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

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