For a long time now, there's something about fans of the Montreal Canadiens and the media that covers the team that has consistently bothered me—a lack of understanding of just how dominant a goal scorer the team has in Max Pacioretty.
For whatever reason, all it takes is a couple of games without a goal for people to get on Pacioretty, regardless of how rounded his defensive game has become, or the fact that he consistently leads the team in shots, points, goals, and shot attempt differential every year.
Most of the criticism surrounding Pacioretty has to do with a perceived lack of physicality, which isn't very valid when you look at the results, or a supposed lack of consistency. It's been beaten to death that scoring in the NHL is naturally inconsistent, so we don't need to go there, but I found myself wondering something else entirely.
Pacioretty is playing in one of the lowest-scoring eras in hockey history, and not counting this current season, he has had six prime scoring years in his career. If you were to take the prime years of the best goal scorers in Canadiens history, with a minimum cutoff of five seasons, and adjust for the era they played in, where would Pacioretty rank?
The first question is how to adjust for era, and that's debatable, but the most common way to do it is to take the average goals per game in a season, and average every season to 6 goals. So if one season the average is 5.8, every goal that season counts for 1.034 goals. It's not an exact measure, but it gives us a good idea of how dominant a player is relative to the time period they played in.
The next question is what do we mean by prime years? The way I measured it was from the start of a player's peak in goal scoring to when those numbers started to trail off significantly. That means with Guy Lafleur for example, his first three NHL seasons would count, and we'd be looking at 1974-75 to 1979-80 as his prime.
I decided not to go any further back in history than Maurice Richard because the game was so different, and frankly the numbers get a little crazy when you look at Newsy Lalonde. Only games with the Canadiens are counted, so some players might look better overall in their careers, but this is just looking at Habs history.
So where does Pacioretty rank among the all-time great Habs snipers?
Pacioretty's goal scoring is often compared to Vincent Damphousse in the 1990s, but because of the differences in scoring in the eras each played in, he's closer to Maurice Richard than he is to Damphousse, as controversial as that sounds.
The closest comparable to Pacioretty in terms of scoring output is Steve Shutt, the pure sniper who rode beside Lafleur and Jacques Lemaire to dominate the second half of the 1970s.
That puts Pacioretty right on the edge of jersey retirement territory, as every player above Shutt on this list has received that honour from the Canadiens.
His career is still ongoing, so we could see his prime scoring numbers increase even more, or drop off, but thus far his prime has been enough to put him among the legends that have worn the jersey. That may come as a shock to many who follow the Canadiens, but it really shouldn't.
Over the last five seasons, Pacioretty has the third most goals per minute played in the entire NHL at 5-vs-5, and the fifth-most total goals in all situations. With results like that, it becomes pretty meaningless to quibble about playing style. Sure, everybody wants their team to have a Cam Neely, but Marian Hossa might be an even more effective player, and that's the kind of player Pacioretty is.
A few other notes on how the other players shook out:
I was shocked to see how great a player Dickie Moore was, playing in the lowest-scoring era of the game's history as we know it, he was absurdly dominant to the point where he outscored Lafleur post-adjustment. Considering the era they played in, you could make a valid argument that the Moore–Beliveau–Geoffrion line was the greatest of all time. It's no wonder that team won five straight Stanley Cups.
Because he played for so long, people forget how great a goal scorer Henri Richard was at his peak. He was always a better playmaker, but his scoring was something special, too.
The late 90s Canadiens were pretty terrible, but "Mr. October" Brian Savage and Martin Rucinsky were underrated bright spots in an era not many people remember fondly.
I think it's extremely important when evaluating players today and throughout history to be mindful of the era that they played in. Most of today's hockey media grew up watching the game in the 1970s and 1980s, eras where scoring was relatively easy due to the rapid expansion of the NHL, and those memories shape the ideas of what a first or second liner should produce offensively.
The fact is that a 30-goal scorer in today's game would be a 46-goal scorer in 1985, and that's something to keep in mind when you watch a player like Pacioretty, or on a more extreme note, Alex Ovechkin.