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Sunday Long Read

Pacioretty: Improvement 'starts with me'

Captain working to strengthen knee, Canadiens in 2016-17

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- You would think that Florida owes Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty a good summer, or at least an uneventful one.

Last July 9 in Boca Raton, Pacioretty's left knee shattered during a dry-land sprint, tibial plateau fractures sinking his summer of training and his participation, beyond rehabilitation, in training camp for the 2015-16 season.

But if the Sunshine State is going to make good this offseason, it's taking its sweet time.

Pacioretty arrived for lunch here on Friday the 13th apologizing for being unshaven; there was no running water in his new home some 25 miles down the road in Boca Raton after the sewage system backed up late Thursday night. Tree roots had burrowed through underground pipes, a surprise to him, his wife, Katia, and their two young sons.

"I guess building inspection missed it," Pacioretty said with a tight grin. His new driveway was being dug up as we spoke.

The sewage fiasco occurred a few hours after his car got a flat on Florida's Formula 1 racetrack, also known as Interstate 95, his slowing vehicle on this multi-lane drag strip often little more than a bug on a tailgating car's windshield.

"Hopefully that's my bad luck for the summer," Pacioretty said, sounding eerily like Jim Lovell in "Apollo 13" describing a stalled Saturn V rocket engine -- not long before half the astronaut's spacecraft exploded.

Video: TBL@MTL: Pacioretty beats Vasilevskiy far side

If you're into symbolism, a sewage backup and a nail in a tire could represent the Canadiens' lost season, one that began with nine straight victories before eventually spinning into a ditch, injuries to cornerstone players Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher, and to others, playing a large role in Montreal's failure to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

We were sitting outside a West Palm Beach restaurant that Pacioretty first saw last summer, the steamy terrace a short limp from the clinic where he'd hobbled with a knee reduced to rubble.

The 27-year-old forward from New Canaan, Conn., had driven up Friday from Boca Raton for a noon bite before returning for a 2 p.m. workout, his summer training already well under way.

Pacioretty had remained in Montreal for two weeks following the Canadiens season finale on April 10, working with therapists, strength coaches and osteopaths to prepare him for his offseason training program.

He flew to Florida, then went back to Connecticut for a visit with longtime personal trainer Ben Prentiss before returning to Boca Raton.

"That's a step I've never really taken in my training before," Pacioretty said of the pre-training prep work. "I've already noticed a big difference in my knee and an improvement in the overall muscle imbalances I've had. I seem to have got a lot better. It's almost like rehab to get ready for the heavy lifting for the summer. I feel really good at this point and I'm glad I have the right people in my corner helping me out with this stuff."

Pacioretty's knee injury last summer was followed by months of rebuilding the joint in rehab, then his being elected by teammates on the eve of September training camp as the 29th captain in Canadiens history.

He missed all of camp but was in the lineup for Opening Night and all 81 games that followed it, leading the Canadiens in points with 64, scoring 30 goals for the fourth consecutive full season and adding a career-high 34 assists.

The Canadiens blasted out of the blocks with nine consecutive victories. But before Christmas there were injuries to goaltender Price and sparkplug forward Gallagher, and Montreal would fall out of the playoff picture, all but mathematically eliminated with 13 games left.

Pacioretty had rehabbed furiously to be ready for the opener and, in hindsight, a full season might have overly taxed a knee that felt the burden on more than one night.

"I don't have any excuses, but I have to own everything, good and bad for the way the season went," he said.

Pacioretty said that, had he not dressed for action with the captain's 'C' freshly stitched on his jersey, "I just wouldn't be able to sleep at night and live with myself knowing (I had a chance to play).

"The reality is, I didn't have a summer last year. I got off crutches then started skating a day later. I did everything I could to get ready for the season. But if working out and lifting weights in the summer wasn't important, then nobody would do it.

"There were certain times in the year I did feel [the knee] affected the power in my skating. But there's a lot more to hockey than power in skating. There are a lot of other elements that go into someone's game and I was thankful that I was able to do a decent job at times using other skills that I've developed over the years."

Video: DET@MTL: Pacioretty nets his second goal for the lead

Leadership was an enormous part of his job, with Pacioretty having filled the Canadiens captaincy after a one-year vacancy.

It wouldn't be Pacioretty's only election victory this season. Teammates voted him the Canadiens nominee for the NHL's King Clancy Memorial Trophy, recognizing on- and off-ice leadership and humanitarian contributions to the community; Pacioretty's foundation, which will stage a fundraising golf tournament north of Montreal this summer, works with the Montreal General Hospital Foundation to support the hospital's traumatic brain-injury project.

Of course, the Canadiens, who finished 13th in the Eastern Conference, were far from a success this season, the glimmers of good performances and occasional bright spots notwithstanding. No one knows that better than Pacioretty, who in his new role absorbed all he could in a unique hockey market, educated game after game in a classroom with 20,000-plus teachers.

"We weren't perfect this year, that's obvious," he said. "We didn't make the playoffs. We all can be better. I know it starts with me as captain. I have to find ways to be better for my teammates on and off the ice, that's part of the process. I don't think any captain was perfect in his first year.

"You get more and more comfortable with it. If speaking doesn't come from the heart and it's not genuine, then it's not the right thing to do. Sometimes, you don't have to say anything at all. You can just lead on the ice. It's all just learning as you go, hearing from other players or coaches who have been in situations like this.

"I have the right mindset. I've talked to a lot of the right people. Obviously I've had the team's support. And even though I feel I could have been better for my teammates at times on and off the ice, I'm sure everybody feels that way when they have an unsuccessful season."

Training camp is four months away, and Pacioretty will use the time both to train exhaustively and relax blissfully with his family off the hockey radar. He calls himself a "man of extremes," intense at both ends of the spectrum, and if he's had his final bad luck for this summer, he will be very happy indeed, preparing for his sophomore season as Canadiens captain, and his ninth with the franchise.

"I want to slow down and enjoy the best years of my life," Pacioretty said of his career with Montreal. "I've got better at living in the moment, not worrying about tomorrow or what happened yesterday. When I'm down here in the summer, I often talk to wife and my parents and friends and think, 'How cool is it that you're captain of the Montreal Canadiens?'

"When I'm in the moment and dealing with hard times, you forget about how cool and how much of an honor it is. I'll always understand the history of being a Montreal Canadien and a captain. But when you're away from it, living down here, living in the moment, it's really nice to sit back, relax and enjoy what this opportunity has given me."

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