Max Pacioretty (Photo by Martin Chevalier / Journal de Montreal)

by Blain Potvin, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

It is ridiculous to look at the single handshake between Marc Bergevin and Max Pacioretty at his recent charity golf tournament and analyze every detail. Yet, here we are. I am not one to read into body language, but what are we to make of this? And of course, what of the resulting speculation by Montreal media and fans?

To be direct, last season was disastrous. If anything could have gone wrong, it did. Some will argue that it was nothing more than bad luck, others blame poor management. But let’s also admit that under Bergevin, the team has been doing no better than treading water as a playoff also ran. It appears that, as a result, the general manager has embraced a youth movement.

Whether it is a youth movement, a personality conflict, an attempt to change the team “attitude” or simply a nod to those who aren’t fond of the CH having an American captain, it is clear that Bergevin is shopping Pacioretty to the entire NHL.

In fact, it has been confirmed by multiple sources that Bergevin had a trade in place with Los Angeles during this June’s NHL Entry Draft in Dallas. That deal fell apart as the Kings and Pacioretty could not come to agreement on a long term deal. That led Pacioretty to move on from longtime player agent (and Bergevin friend) Pat Brisson to the controversial Allan Walsh.

“I am physically ready to start camp and ready to produce this season.”

This has kicked off a summer of discontent in the Pacioretty file. While speculation is rampant about his future, Pacioretty has focused on one of the things he can control, his own training. He told TVA Sports (translated from French) “It’s the first time I’ve entered an off-season coming off a bad year. Our team also had a horrible year. I can only focus on what I can control and I can ensure I am physically ready to start camp and ready to produce this season.”

In all of the turmoil, Pacioretty has put on a brave face and acted as the consummate professional. The captain is exhibiting similar leadership qualities displayed by previous holders of the Canadiens ‘C.’ Meanwhile the same cannot be said about Walsh, Habs management and the mainstream media. 

The very public battle waged by Pacioretty’s agent with the Canadiens and reporters is only making matters worse. The fact that Max has not yet received an extension offer, as he enters the final year of his contract, is less than ideal. Yet once again, Walsh repeated Pacioretty’s desire to stay in Montreal.

All of the uncertainty led Pacioretty to plan his annual charity golf tournament at the last minute, sending invitations just two weeks in advance “in case something happened.” The invitations and who was attending, or not attending, set off its own little soap opera in Montreal, and of course, on social media. 

This week players and management have additional drama to face. Was the handshake firm enough? Was there enough eye contact? Was the dialogue exchange sincere?

However, this is drama born of the actions or inaction of management itself. Montreal and her fans are well known to be voracious and emotional when it comes to their Habs and their legacy. The Captain is looked to as being the torch bearer for that legacy and Bergevin should have known that this situation would lead to what we see now, a full blown soap opera.

Perhaps Arpon Basu, of The Athletic put it best when he tweeted, “..a situation that has become the very definition of a farce.”

Is this all part of a negotiation strategy by the GM? If so, it can only make him less popular among a fan base that is already showing obvious signs of frustration. Fans are quick to point to hardball tactics used in negotiating with Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov that blew up in the general manager’s face. 

When Bergevin was asked if Pacioretty will report to training camp, he flippantly replied, “Of course, like every other player.”

Adding to the drama was an article in French by Martin Leclerc of the CBC claiming that Pacioretty asked for a trade several times last season. Leclerc speculated that the request triggered the chilly relations between the team and its captain. Leclerc didn’t stop there, arguing that a disingenuous Pacioretty has been putting on a show for the fans this summer.

Not to be outdone, Walsh hit back on his favorite platform categorically denying the claims in the article. The agent suggested that Habs management was the “source” leaking fake news.

In Friday’s Journal de Montreal, Yvon Pedneault claimed that Pacioretty agreed to be moved to another city a few days after Bergevin had figuratively slapped the captain in the face with harsh words exclaiming “I’m going to trade you!” Pedneault wrote that his sources are telling him that a trade could be imminent.

Leave it to someone who is intimately familiar with the Canadiens and the city to lend a common sense voice to the circus. The unfairly-maligned (and Stanley Cup winner) Lars Eller offered some words of wisdom via Twitter.

So where are we beyond the distraction of a no-holds-barred PR battle? Here are my thoughts.

I believe that Walsh is doing his job representing his client by trying to force Bergevin to act before the season gets underway.

I worry that any time Bergevin rushes, as anyone would, he makes glaring errors.

And I firmly assert that Pacioretty has earned the right to some certainty beyond this season.

Is it possible that Pacioretty re-signs long-term with the Canadiens? 

Bergevin has acknowledged the difficulty the team faces when attempting to sign unrestricted free agents. Pacioretty has made it clear he is unafraid of any downside of being in Montreal. He loves the fans and the city and the fans by choosing Montreal as his home year round.

Finding a 29-year-old proven 30-goal scorer who embraces the city the way he does is rare, and should not be ignored. Even if the team is looking to its youth to lead the way back to being a Cup contender, someone will need to add veteran leadership (and some goals, don’t forget the goals.) As the current captain of the team, Max is a good choice.

Can Bergevin strike the right balance between term and cap hit? And can he repair the strained relations? That would be a tall order.

It seems far more likely, at this point, that Bergevin will trade his captain.

A side benefit of moving Pacioretty is that it would be a changing of the guard in the leadership group which the general manager seems to feel is necessary. But the main advantage is an injection of young talent that should be the return when trading one of the NHL’s top snipers. The trade should yield significant pieces to help the ‘retool’ that is underway.

Can Bergevin replace the productivity of Pacioretty with the assets he receives in return?

Given that Pacioretty has already been ‘traded once’ this summer, it is fair to say that the Canadiens are already on that path. But one thing is clear. Given all of the public noise during this reality show, it is incumbent on Bergevin to hit a home run. Even if he does, it may not be enough to save his job. But anything less will lead to even louder calls for his dismissal.

In closing let’s acknowledge that throughout this process, Pacioretty has been open, honest and has answered difficult questions without hesitation. The class he has displayed and the effort he has put in for the franchise and its fans deserves our respect. This is a player who took being captain of the Montreal Canadiens to heart and understood the importance of his role.

At a minimum, Habs management must can do is put an end to the uncertainty. Sign the captain to a long term deal, or trade him. This soap opera, including the dissection of a simple handshake, has gone on long enough.