When Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin traded defenseman Josh Gorges and allowed captain Brian Gionta to leave as a free agent, he made it clear that it was time for the team's young veterans to assume the duties the two team leaders would leave behind.
That message has been received loud and clear by last season's leading scorer.
Forward Max Pacioretty sees his role growing in the absence of Gorges and Gionta, both of whom will be playing in the Atlantic Division with the Buffalo Sabres this season.
"Now that we're going in a different direction, I feel I'm going to have to play a much bigger role on this team," Pacioretty told Montreal radio station TSN 690 on Monday. "I'm really looking forward to doing that. At the end of the year last year I wore a letter, and it was definitely an honor. Obviously, I didn't see this coming, where both [Gionta] and Gorges would be gone, but it shows that the management is ready for some of these young guys to step up. That's when I've got to look in the mirror and help some people out, the guys that are even younger than me. I feel I'm going to be able to do that."
Who will replace Gionta as captain of the Canadiens has become a hot topic in Montreal of late, with many people wondering if it will go to one of the holdover veterans of the team like defenseman Andrei Markov and center Tomas Plekanec, or if it will be one of the young veterans Bergevin mentioned.
The two prime candidates from the latter group would be Pacioretty and defenseman P.K. Subban, both of whom are 25 and signed to long-term contracts. Subban signed the richest contract in franchise history earlier this month, an eight-year, $72 million pact that gives him the highest average salary of any defenseman in the NHL.
Pacioretty, who finished fourth in the NHL with 39 goals last season, is signed through the end of the 2018-19 season at an average annual value of $4.5 million, making him one of the bigger bargains in the League.
Pacioretty told TSN 690 radio host Tony Marinaro on Monday that after Subban signed his contract on Aug. 2, the two young stars had a discussion about the leadership of the team.
"Now it's our time to step up and be leaders," Pacioretty said he told Subban. "We don't have to worry about contracts now; we just have to worry about winning and helping the team win."
Subban's big contract does not appear to be an issue for Pacioretty, who chose to focus more on the fact he should be in Montreal for the next eight seasons rather than the big average salary.
"I'm really happy that P.K.'s going to be here for a while," Pacioretty said. "He's obviously a huge part of this team, a huge part of this city and organization. He and I have developed a good friendship as the years have gone on. It's no secret how important he is to our team. I think it's just a little bit more of a comfort thing knowing he's on board now for at least eight more years. I'm excited about it. He obviously deserves it; he's one of the best defensemen in the world."
The Canadiens are coming off their deepest playoff run since their last Stanley Cup victory in 1993, losing in six games in the Eastern Conference Final to the New York Rangers. In spite of that success, a fair amount of change came in the offseason, with Daniel Briere, Thomas Vanek, Douglas Murray, George Parros and, in all likelihood, Francis Bouillon, an unrestricted free agent, joining Gionta and Gorges as departed veterans.
But Pacioretty is not overly concerned because he feels some of the young players on the team are ready to spread their wings and fly this season, particularly forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher.
"I think it's tough for people just looking on paper to realize that our team should be better this year," Pacioretty said. "Guys like Galchenyuk and Gallagher, they're going into their third year, and this is the year I think they'll really start to feel comfortable around the team and in their game. The first year, you're playing on emotion. The second year, people always worry about that sophomore slump, but they did a great job of avoiding that. But I think the third year is really a good year for these guys. I think they're going to be young leaders on the team."
"Young leaders" used to be a term that applied to players like Pacioretty, but with the changes made in the offseason the word "young" might need to be removed from his label, even if he is all of 25.
When asked if he would be interested in being named captain, Pacioretty didn't hesitate to say yes.
"Of course. I think if you ask every person on our team they'd have the same answer," he said. "It would be an absolute honor. But at the end of the day you want what's best for the team, so if the coaches and the players feel that someone else is a better candidate, I'm all on board for that as well."