Max Pacioretty believes he plays his best hockey when he doesn’t think on the ice.
But, by his own admission, the left wing was in his own head a lot his first season with the Golden Knights.
That’s what happens when, a few days before training camp, you join a team coming off the Stanley Cup Final and enter its locker room, as he said, “walking on eggshells.” This year, though, his mind is clear and he’s looking forward to what he thinks will be a much improved second season.
“Last year, I would rush out of the rink (in training camp) and either look at houses, check out the schools or go do whatever I had to do to make sure when my family came they were comfortable,” Pacioretty said. “It’s nice I don’t have to deal with that pressure. At the time, you don’t think about if that takes a toll on you, but it probably does.”
It’s understandable that Pacioretty put pressure on himself last season. The former Montreal Canadiens captain was traded four days before camp began for Tomas Tatar, former first-round pick Nick Suzuki and a second-round pick, then got a four-year, $28 million extension.
The sharpshooter, who ranks 11th in the league in goals since the 2012-13 season, was supposed to elevate the Knights’ second line and bring them back to the Final. He knew that, but he also didn’t want to barge onto the team and mess up its chemistry.
That’s why, he said, he entered the situation a little apprehensively.
“Obviously, I wanted to help the team, but at the same time they had so much success prior to the trade,” Pacioretty said. “So knowing that now I’ve kind of earned my right to be a part of this team … It’s a much different feeling for me in camp this year.”
It’s also different because he doesn’t have to move his three sons and wife, who was pregnant with boy No. 4 at the time, to a new city. And because he enters this season with established linemates in center Paul Stastny and right wing Mark Stone, a former rival turned friend.
“We really have a lot of fun playing together,” Pacioretty said. “I’ve always found that I play a lot better with smart players, and those are smart players. I think anyone can say that, but I think for myself personally, when I can turn off my brain and let them do the thinking and go out there and react, that’s when I tend to have success.”
Stone called the trio “as good of a line as I’ve ever been on.” And coach Gerard Gallant offered the three consistent praise in camp after they finished 1-2-3 in points in a first-round playoff series against San Jose.
If they can stay together, it would help Pacioretty keep his brain off, because last season injuries to linemates Stastny, Alex Tuch and Erik Haula forced him to keep it on at times. He also battled injuries, but he thinks he’s set now to again become the player that had four straight 30-goal seasons from 2013 to 2017. Not the one who scored 17 in his final season with the Canadiens and 22 in his first season with the Knights.
“Things are a lot different,” Pacioretty said. “I was sitting here last year in the hotel, worrying about a lot of stuff. All good things. Where to live and what to expect after being in an organization for 10 years. I feel really comfortable right now.”
Max Pacioretty file
Birthplace: New Canaan, Conn.
Position: Left wing
NHL stats (11 seasons): 692 games, 248 goals, 240 assists
2018-19 stats: 66 games, 22 goals, 18 assists