Did you just love Max Pacioretty in that pre-season game against Detroit? I did. He was fast, aggressive, smart and did everything right on both his regulation-time goal and his shootout beauty. He made a really good case for himself in his effort to prove he deserves an NHL job. It'll be hard to cut him...so hard that he might actually push a regular out of the lineup and steal a spot with the big team. Most likely though, the decision, hard as it is, will be the same one Bob Gainey made last year when Sergei Kostitsyn had a stellar camp and still started the year in Hamilton.
Because when it comes down to it, Pacioretty is nineteen years old with one college season and a pro training camp separating him from his US high school team. There's no doubt he's got tons of natural ability, and that he'll be a good NHL player whenever he gets his shot. But there's not a player of that age or background who can't learn something and refine his game with a stint in the minors, and with a teaching coach like the Bulldogs' Don Lever. As good as he looks right now, Pacioretty has the potential to be even better, which might not be realized if he's thrust into an NHL role right now. The coaching staff has to decide if it's in the best interests of Pacioretty to launch his first rigorous pro season under the bright lights and high expectations of Montreal. Sergei Kostitsyn did well after his call up last season, but he had an older brother on the team who could act as mentor and friend. Carey Price, on the other hand, experienced deep valleys in morale and had to learn on the fly how to take care of himself physically. Which speaks to the theory that just because a player's skills are ready for the NHL, the player himself may not be as prepared for that reality.
I think it's great to be positive about Max Pac's future with the Habs, and look forward to the contributions he will make to the team's success. But fans need to be a little more patient and not leap on the "play him now" bandwagon...lambasting the coaches if they choose to send him to Hamilton. Remember how everyone loved Guillaume Latendresse as an eighteen-year-old, after his first camp when he hit everything in sight? Remember the outcry when he was sent back to junior, only to come back with another great camp as a nineteen-year-old? Yet, when he made the team and the path of his development became rockier, the same fans who demanded to see him promoted were ready to trade him for ice shavings. Same thing with Greg Stewart. He had one great game last season, and now he's everyone's choice for the fourth line, ahead of Kostopoulos, Lapierre and Begin. I wonder how many ordinary games on Stewart's part it would take before fans are ready to discard him in favour of the next unproven rookie?
It's easy to understand in a way. The kids are the living embodiment of potential and hope. They still have the possibility to be or do anything, and they haven't yet proven they can't. So it's tempting to look at them as better than the players whose experience has exposed their human and hockey weaknesses. And rest assured, they all have them.
The other problem with promoting Pacioretty right now though, is determining where he'll play. He's too good to be limited to fourth-line minutes and a banging, checking role. Yet who of Higgins, Koivu, Latendresse, the Kostitsyns, Tanguay, Plekanec, Kovalev and Lang will move to make way for him? The easy answer is Latendresse, but that's too easy. You can bet the team isn't going to give up on the local boy who's worked really hard to improve on his decent first two seasons, and who's just 21 himself. Really, unless someone seriously plays himself out of a spot, and I mean Samsonov or Ryder-like, or there's a top-nine winger hurt, there just isn't room for Max Pac.
Matters are further complicated by Kyle Chipchura, who was drafted to be the team's shut-down centre and is developing nicely toward that, with some fine games...even if not as spectacular as Pacioretty... in pre-season as well. Considering the fact that his role would fit the fourth line and his NHL experience to date probably puts him a little closer to a full-time job, he's mounting a strong challenge for a big-league spot as well. And with 23 NHLers on staff already, the team would have to cut someone just to get Chipchura onto the fourth line. Finding two regulars who are expendable enough to make room for Pacioretty and Chipchura is much tougher.
As I mentioned before, this is the consequence of having a very good team and a very good development system. There will always be too many players for too few jobs. That means management will have to make some difficult choices about cutting good players. In Pacioretty's case, it's not so tough when you look at the big picture. He's very young and his chance will come when several spots open up next season. In the meantime, he can learn the pro ropes in Hamilton and be ready when he's called, whether for a couple of injury-relief games, or to replace someone who fails to perform. We fans should just be glad he's a Hab, and look forward to his (hopefully) long career in Canadiens' colours...when the time is right.