Monday, September 28, 2009

Max Pac, First Liner

So, it seems Jacques the Knife is going with a first line of Scott Gomez! Brian Gionta! and...Max Pacioretty? Hmmm. Reminds me of the old Sesame Street ditty: "One of these things is not like the others, One of these things just doesn't belong, Can you tell which thing is not like the others, By the time I finish my song?"

I like Max Pacioretty. He seems like a smart, hardworking kid. But he's twenty years old and has proven a grand total of diddly with a side of squat at the NHL level. Hell, he's proven about as much at the AHL level. Yet, here he is, on the first line of the re-tooled Habs. This worries me because I'm not sure the kid is physically or mentally ready for that kind of important role.

Physically, we've seen him have some issues with stamina. He played just one season...37 games...of college hockey before turning pro and playing another 37 for the Bulldogs in Hamilton and 34 for the Habs. When you add it up, there's not a whole lot of hockey between high school and the Habs' first line for Pacioretty. It showed last January, when the kid burst out with five points in his first nine games after getting called up, but ended up scoring only three goals in his 34-game NHL stint. And, he's sustained groin and shoulder injuries, as well as a major abdominal tear that required sports hernia surgery in the summer. Staying healthy will be a big challenge for him this year. He's got NHL size, but he doesn't yet have the NHL savvy that will keep him out of harm's way most of the time. And the style he'll be asked to play requires a pretty rugged frame.

Mentally, his NHL experience so far has been tainted by the team-wide malaise that infected last year's Centennial squad. He admits last season he suffered from a lack of confidence after his production went south along with the rest of the team's. He says he's been reading books about confidence and speaking with a sports psychologist to help him deal with his issues. But, he's twenty. He's a kid. And his line is going to be expected to put up a large share of the team's total goals this season. If he makes mistakes, as kids will, or he finds he's just not up to the task of keeping up with Gomez and Gionta, you have to worry that all his book reading and shrink visits will be out the window when reality hits. There'll be a ton of pressure on him to produce, not only from himself, but from his linemates who need him to play at their level so they can produce and justify their contracts.

I understand why The Knife wants to gamble on him, though. He's shown some tantalizing skating and passing skills. He's got a nice shot, a grounded character and, perhaps most importantly, he's got the size the two little'uns on his line lack. His job will be to get the puck off the boards for Gomez and Gionta, and to be aggressive on the forecheck. I think he'll be able to do that, IF he can stay physically and mentally healthy. The temptation to hand him an important role must be strong, especially considering the alternatives available.

I'd like to see him pull it off. Right now, he's among the best options available for adding size to the top line. But I don't want to see him there if it means he'll get set back in his development because he's been given too much NHL responsibility too soon. I'd rather see him in Hamilton, or given a third-line role for a few months.

It's nice when prospects are ready early. It's been a long time since the Habs have had a guy really deserve to be in the NHL just a couple of years after his draft, and then thrive at the top level once he makes it. But Guillaume Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn and Carey Price are there to bear witness to the way a young player can struggle when he's not ready and he gets promoted anyway. I'd rather not see Pacioretty's name on that list. I just have to trust Martin will do what's best for the kid and not wait around too long to make a change if Pacioretty needs one. After all, there's no point in drafting potential if you stunt its development.


Howard said...

JT, I agree with your assesment. I just don't see too much alternative. I'd love to see Cammalleri up there but that would make 3 smurfs. I think Pax has more speed than Latendresse in order to keep up with Gomez and Gionta. I don't think there are a lot of guys on the team who could. I wish him all the best and hope he hammers the traitor along the boards on Thursday, digs out the puck for his linemates and boom the net!

DB said...

With every young player there are concerns about how a team handles his development. There are no hard and fast rules about how much time a player needs in the minors or on the third line.

The key to development is having good coaches with a strong player support system. Clearly, the Habs did not have this in the past. They have it now with Martin, and that is why I believe that Max Pac will be fine.

J.T. said...

@Howard: Down with the traitor! And, I hope Pax turns out to be the Cashman to Gionta's Esposito.

@DB: Agreed that every player has his own rate of development. Just saying it's a rare one that can step into a first-line role successfully without some seasoning. I hope he's one of them, but the more realistic hope I have is that Martin will see it if he's not, and get him out of there.

Scott in Montreal said...

Okay, but it is just the line-up for Game 1. It's a vote of confidence in the rookie and it helps balance the scoring on the top three lines. I must say, J.T., you are sounding like a worry-wart lately (albeit a particularly coherent one).

I am looking forward to this season. The team seems much more locked-in than in seasons past. I think grit is making a comeback, and the leadership brought in (Cammaleri, Gomez, Gill, Spacek, Mara, Gionta) will not let young guys like MaxPac, O'Byrne and Price take very much heat from the fans and media. These three - plus Pleks and Dags - look like they feel a huge weight lifted and can just go about learning and improving. Just the right medicine IMHO.