It is really hard to assess trades in the NHL. So much goes into a trade, and often the players traded are involved with their own trades that spiral out into massive trade trees. And then you have to take into consideration what the team needs at the time. One team that got only one year of production from a player may have won the trade simply because they were in ‘win-now’ mode.
It might be a little early, but it is hard to see a future where this trade does not work out for Montreal. The trade was made a little less than 3 years ago, September 10th 2018, the Montreal Canadiens traded their captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar and a second round pick. But to look at the whole story, we have to go back in time further.
Max Pacioretty’s story starts off in a surprising place, San Jose. On February 5th, 2007, the Montreal Canadiens traded a fifth round pick in 2008 and Craig Rivet for Josh Gorges and a first round pick in 2007. The aging Rivet played just one full season in San Jose, scoring 5 goals and 35 points, as well as contributing to two playoff runs. The fifth round pick San Jose acquired was used to pick Julien Demers, who never played an NHL game.
Josh Gorges played two half seasons in San Jose before being sent to Montreal. In a Canadiens’ uniform, Gorges played 7 seasons, and while he never scored much, topping out at 4 goals and 23 points in 2008-09, he played a very defensively stout game. In 2014, he was traded to Buffalo for a second round pick in 2016 which became Chad Krys. Gorges played 4 seasons of his trademark defensive game in Buffalo before retiring in 2017-18.
Chad Krys has an interesting story for having not played in the NHL yet. His draft pick was traded from Minnesota to Buffalo in a deal that also involved future Hab Torrey Mitchell (who played 4 seasons in Montreal between 2014-2018 before retiring) and Vitek Vanecek for 3-time 30 goal scorer Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick. But Montreal didn’t hold onto the draft pick for long, as they traded him and a second round draft pick to Chicago for Andrew Shaw. That second round draft pick turned into Alex DeBrincat, by the way. But Shaw was traded back to Chicago in a deal that brought in Jan Mysak, who looks to be an interesting prospect.
After being drafted in 2007, it took a few years for Pacioretty to break into the league big time. 2011-12 was Pacioretty’s coming out party, scoring 33 goals and 65 points. After a lower year in 2012-13 (15 goals, 39 points in 44 games), Pacioretty scored 30+ goals in 4 straight seasons. 2017-18 was a pretty terrible year for Montreal and Pacioretty, who finished third last in the conference and with 17 goals and 37 points.
Nick Suzuki began his career as a Winnipeg Jets draft pick.
Marko Dano, who the Jets traded Suzuki to protect, was claimed off waivers to Colorado Avalanche, then signed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, and then signed once again by Winnipeg. He has played just 11 NHL games since 2018, and has most recently played in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose. Tobias Enstrom played his entire NHL career with the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, but retired from the NHL after the 2017-18 season.
Fortunately for Vegas, the trade worked great. Chris Thorburn was never seen in a Vegas uniform, and played 51 games in St. Louis after being selected by Vegas and then signing as a free agent to the Blues, scoring just 1 goal and 7 points. Thorburn was a perennial 4th liner who never broke 10 goals or 20 points in a single season. Technically, Vegas turned one of either Dano and Enstrom for Suzuki, and turned that into the major piece in the Pacioretty trade.
Tomas Tatar was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings 60th overall in 2009. Tatar became a steady 20 goal scorer, and was traded from the failing Red Wings to a Vegas team that was gearing up for their big playoff run. The Golden Knights traded away a first round pick that was originally the Islanders’, Joe Veleno, a second round pick, Robert Mastrosimone, and a third round pick in 2021.
But Tatar found himself in the pressbox more than on the ice, and found himself out to Montreal after 1 year. He was packaged with Suzuki and a second round pick, which would become Samuel Fagemo. Fagemo was then traded to L.A. for a third and fifth round pick. The third round pick was used to select Mattias Norlinder, who is an interesting prospect to say the least.
So those are all of the pieces. But where exactly do they land?
Pacioretty signed in Vegas as soon as he was traded, and the deal was for 4 years and $7 million with a modified no movement clause. His first year in Sin City was a bit of a let-down, scoring only 22 goals, but he more than made up for it in the playoffs where he scored 5 goals and 11 points in just 7 games. 2019-20 saw Patches back to his high-scoring ways with 32 goals and 66 points, and this year he was on pace for 30 goals had it been a full season, finishing with 24 goals and 51 points in 48 games. $7 million for a near point-per-game player and 30 goal scorer over the last two years is not bad at all.
Tatar was signed for 4 years and $5.3 million in Detroit; a deal that just expired last year before he signed in New Jersey, but also had $500,000 of his salary retained by Vegas in the deal that sent him to Montreal. Tatar gained great form, teaming up with Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault to form one of the most dominant lines in hockey, and put up his two best years points-wise with 58 and 61 respectively. In fact, his 61 points in 2019-20 was just off of a point-per-game, and lead the entire team for the year.
Nick Suzuki was, as mentioned before, a Winnipeg Jets draft pick but was selected by Vegas 13th overall in 2017 and never played in Vegas. Suzuki was always a strong OHL player. In his first year with the Owen Sound Attack he finished with 20 goals and 38 points, but followed it up with a 45 goal, 96 point performance in 65 games along with an 8 goal, 26 point effort in 17 playoff games. He got even better after being traded to the Guelph Storm in the 2018-19 season, where he finished the regular season with 12 goals and 49 points in 29 games. But his performance in the playoffs was exceptional with 16 goals and 42 points in just 24 games.
Thanks to that performance, Suzuki completely bypassed the AHL and made his NHL debut in 2019. His first year was a strong 13 goal, 41 points one, and this past year he matched that point total in 15 less games. In the NHL playoffs, he has produced at just under a point-per-game, with 7 points in 10 games and 16 points in 22 games last year, when the Canadiens made the Stanley Cup Final.
And that last bit is the most important part when analysing this trade. When this trade was made in 2018, these two teams were heading in opposite directions. The Golden Knights had just made a surprising run to the Final, only to fall short against the Washington Capitals, and the Montreal Canadiens had a terrible regular season, which resulted in them getting the third overall pick, Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
The deal was seen at the time as a win-win. The Golden Knights were looking to improve on a team that made the Final and were receiving Max Pacioretty, a scorer that is in his prime. The Montreal Canadiens were in a middling time, where they were looking at a rebuild, or at least a retooling, and they received a blue-chip prospect in Nick Suzuki. Each team got what they needed in the deal. And then the pandemic happened.
Montreal squeaked into the playoffs and took advantage of Toronto’s complete inability to get past the first round, and demolished the Winnipeg Jets en route to becoming the Kings of the North and meeting the Vegas Golden Knights in the semifinals. So, while Montreal losing the round was expected and wouldn’t spell a loss in Bergevin’s book, all the pressure was on the Golden Knights.
And we all know how that turned out.
Max Pacioretty is 32 years old, which is reaching the upper limits of NHL player primes, and while there hasn’t been many signs of decline, they will come. Nick Suzuki is 22 years old, still years off of his prime and he is arguably already a #1 centre. Montreal is a young team on the rise, while Vegas is at their peak. And Montreal was the team that rose above to the Stanley Cup Final.
The perfect microcosm of the series was Game 5. Montreal breezed past Vegas on the strength of Suzuki’s 3 point night, and while Pacioretty scored 1 goal (his only tally of the series), it was when the game was already out of reach at 3-0. Pacioretty was outperformed by 1/3 of the return that Montreal received for him.
But that was just a 6 game stretch, its not definitive. But look at what each team needed when this trade happened. Vegas needed the missing piece to bring them back to the Stanley Cup Final and hopefully win it all. So far, Vegas has not returned to the Finals, and even lost to the Montreal Canadiens, who were not supposed to be this good this soon, and only look to get better in the long term with young stars like Suzuki, Caufield, Romanov and Guhle coming up the ranks. Looks like an open and shut case to me.