In a season already shaping up to be full of positive developments, Hamilton Bulldogs forward Max Pacioretty won't soon forget his 22nd birthday.
Pacioretty, a third-year left wing, entered the Bulldogs' Nov. 20 contest at the rival Toronto Marlies already averaging nearly a point per game on the AHL season, but broke out in a big way with three consecutive goals in regulation and another in the shootout, although the Bulldogs ultimately dropped a 4-3 decision.
It marked Pacioretty's first professional hat trick, and near as he could remember, the first one of his hockey career, period.
"It was a good feeling to finally score some goals, and even more special that it came on my birthday," he said. "It might have been the first hat trick in my life."
Registering a hat trick is one indication that, so far, the blank-slate mindset is working.
A first-round draft pick (No. 22) by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007 Entry Draft, Pacioretty spent a season at the University of Michigan and then burst onto the pro scene in 2008-09 with 22 points in his first 31 AHL games with Hamilton.
Just after Christmas, the Canadiens summoned the then-20-year-old Pacioretty to Montreal, where he spent the next three months before returning to Hamilton for the Bulldogs' final six games.
He began the 2009-10 season back with the Habs but struggled in limited minutes and produced only 14 points in 52 games. In late January, Pacioretty was sent back to the AHL and went on to contribute 11 points in 18 games for Hamilton down the stretch.
It's been quite the circuitous development route thus far, but Pacioretty is quick to shoot down the suggestion that his initial NHL call-up came too soon.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "When I first went up, I was playing good hockey and put up some decent numbers. I look at it all as a process -- everyone has a different path to the NHL. This path seems to be a little different than a lot of other people, but hopefully it works out in the long run."
At 6-foot-2 and 196 pounds, Pacioretty needs to use his size and strength to win battles and contribute offensively as a power forward in the mold of long-time NHL standout Keith Tkachuk, one of Pacioretty's favorite players to watch growing up.
"Since I'm a bigger forward, I'm expected to play physical and put up numbers, as well, and that's something that's hard to do consistently," Pacioretty said. "It's something that you have to work on so much and almost master in order to do it day in and day out."
Pacioretty looks at his brief pro career up to this point through two clear-cut but very distinct lenses -- a solid, learning experience in his rookie season and a much more difficult 2009-10 season.
"After my first year I was confident I was going to come into camp and help the (Canadiens) offensively, and that didn't happen," he said. "Last year was really my year where I struggled. Sometimes it's tough to deal with, whether it's the media saying I've stepped back in my career or hurt my career, or am a first-round bust. Learning how to deal with all that stuff and to overcome adversity is all part of the process of making it to the NHL."
Combining the determination of a top young prospect with a level of pure candor to express his visions for himself, Pacioretty makes no bones about where he sees his career headed -- a top-six forward role in the National Hockey League.
The native of New Canaan, Conn. -- an hour north of New York City -- made a few waves in the hockey-driven Canadian sports media earlier this month when he stated that if he can't be a top-six forward in Montreal this season, he'd rather develop in that capacity with Hamilton instead of playing bottom-six minutes with the big club for a third-straight season.
"I just feel that down the road, I'm going to be able to contribute in a top-six role," Pacioretty said. "In order to reach my goal, I need to get my confidence to the point where I can put up top numbers on a team, whether that's in the NHL or the AHL."
For his part, first-year Hamilton coach Randy Cunneyworth isn't sure what all the fuss was about, and views Pacioretty's mindset as a positive.
"From what I understand, the comments were blown out of proportion," Cunneyworth said. "He just wants to get down to work, have a good year here, improve some of his weaknesses and help the team win. That's his focus right now. I think those comments were just him trying to relay that he's OK with where he's at now and he knows he's got a lot to learn."
Pacioretty hasn't wasted any time this season in displaying his offensive capabilities as a go-to forward. Including the birthday hat trick in Toronto, he's tied for the team lead with 8 goals and ranks second behind linemate David Desharnais with 21 points in 18 games.
He's already put together seven multiple-point performances this season -- including each of the last three games -- after totaling nine such efforts in 55 AHL games entering this season.
Consequently, his confidence on the offensive side of the puck continues to grow leaps and bounds from where it was at this point last season.
"It's what makes me almost feel like I want to stay the whole year -- I want to prove to myself as well as to everyone else that these first 18 games aren't just a fluke," Pacioretty said. "I want to show that I'm capable of playing like this for an entire season."
Cunneyworth, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Thrashers following an eight-year run as head coach of the AHL's Rochester Americans, is impressed by what he's seen from Pacioretty through the first six weeks.
"He's got an NHL shot and release, and he's a sizable player where he can fit that power-forward role," Cunneyworth said. "Max has come down and there's not been one gesture or anything where you might consider him sulking. He's gotten right down to work, and obviously by some of his numbers and games he's had, he's doing a great job."
Cunneyworth added that while Pacioretty has looked to improve his offensive contributions, he is also focusing on shoring up other areas, including his defensive-zone positioning and overall skating game.
If he can put the full package together over time, Pacioretty will be more than capable of filling a first- or second-line forward slot in the NHL.
Despite the turbulent nature of his young career, he did only just turn 22.
"I feel that I'm close to it," Pacioretty said. "I have to keep things going the way they have been, continue to build my game and confidence, and hopefully next year I'll feel ready for that role.
"I don't see any reason why he can't achieve that goal," Cunneyworth said. "You have to be patient. I think he has to look at the whole picture and keep everything in perspective. If he's as good a player as he believes he is -- as we believe he is -- his time will come."