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Why the Canadiens should hold Max Pacioretty until the trade deadline

Keeping him two thirds of the season may feel awkward, but every party involved has something to gain if he’s dealt later in the year.

There’s no hiding from it: at least in the public eye, the Montreal Canadiens have run a clinic this summer on how not to manage, shop or negotiate with a player entering the final season of his contract.

First came the source indicating the Habs had no plans to extend their captain’s contract after it expires this coming season. Whether that source came from the Habs or not, the very fact that information leaked looked bad for the franchise, as it sucked away a ton of leverage from GM Marc Bergevin in potential trade talks. You never have to ask as much for something you know the other party is actively trying to give away.

Then came Tuesday’s awkward charity golf tournament, hosted by Pacioretty, which Bergevin and Canadiens owner Geoff Molson attended. Neither camp wanted to disclose much about any contract talks or lack thereof, but Pacioretty reiterated his love for the city.

“I have no control of that situation, but at the end of the day, you guys know how I feel about living here, and I do live here 12 months out of the year,” he told Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “My kids start school tomorrow, and we’re really excited about that. But oftentimes I get asked about if it’s weird to be in this situation, but tons of people around the league are faced with this situation on a yearly basis. It’s just mine is so magnified because of where we are and who I am.”

Added Pacioretty’s agent Allan Walsh via Twitter:

“To be clear, while there have been many discussions over the last two months, there have been no negotiations on a new contract. Montreal has not made any offers to this date. Max has stated repeatedly that he loves Montreal and wants to sign a new contract with the Canadiens.”

Their beloved captain has no desire to leave, and it’s nakedly clear the Canadiens intend to send him out anyway. The franchise finds itself in a cringeworthy predicament entering training camp. Do you keep your captain that long, knowing his days are numbered? Do you try to trade him before then, knowing you’ve lost a significant leverage in negotiations?

It may seem like the best solution is the Band-Aid approach, and it would alleviate the social discomfort, but patience may be prudent for all parties. There’s a case to be made holding ‘Patches’ through to the 2019 trade deadline would be the best result for everyone. Allow me to make it:

1. Pacioretty can spend most of the season with his family. As he stated Tuesday, he lives in Montreal year round and his children are about to start school. A trade in the next few weeks would make life extremely complicated for the Pacioretty family. Do his kids uproot and move with him to his new city? What happens if a trade does not involve signing an extension and he has no idea if he’ll be spending more than one season with his new team? It’s entirely possible Pacioretty would have to leave his family in Montreal for the year, which, judging by how lovingly he speaks about his kids, sounds like it would be difficult for the whole family and might even distract Pacioretty on the ice.

A late-winter trade at the deadline, however, is a different story. He could leave his family for a couple months as a rental and not have to make any decisions about moving until the summer, especially since he’d then become a UFA and have his pick of destinations.

2. Pacioretty can up his UFA dollar value

Pacioretty was one of the NHL’s most consistent goal scorers from 2011-12 to 2016-17. Over that six-season stretch, he averaged 35 goals per 82 games. Only Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Joe Pavelski scored more goals during that period. Pacioretty’s 2017-18 production was thus highly disappointing. He managed a paltry 17 goals and 37 points in 64 games.

Luckily, Pacioretty is still just 29. He has plenty of good seasons left and should be a strong bet to rebound. It would be a shock if he didn’t at least climb back to the 25-goal mark. And Pacioretty needs to do so. He was a tremendous bargain on his expiring six-year deal, carrying a cap hit of just $4.5 million, so his next contract needs to be his set-for-life pact. A year ago, he appeared on track for a monster payday, something in the $7-million AAV range. But what does a 17-goal man command on the open market? It’s crucial for Patches to have a big year.

So what does that have to do with getting traded at the deadline? Can’t he have a big year wherever he plays? Sure, but a pre-season trade makes the negotiating price awkward. The team acquiring him may demand that a contract extension be part of the deal. That’s why players with exactly one season left are the toughest to value in trade talks (read: Karlsson, Erik). They aren’t long-term acquisitions and they aren’t quite rentals, either. And if an acquiring team wants to extend Pacioretty now, they’ll be negotiating dollar figures for a 17-goal man. Financially, he’s best off being traded as a rental at the deadline so he makes it to the open market July 1 – ideally after a resurgent season.

3. Pacioretty can up his trade value for the Canadiens

This one’s a no-brainer. The Canadiens would be selling Pacioretty at his lowest value right now – or at least with the lowest possible demand. Yes, a full year of Pacioretty could be worth more than a rental version of Pacioretty, but it makes the return more complicated to negotiate (see point No. 2) than a rental. Also, if he returns to his previous production levels, he may attract more suitors later than the Habs have right now.  How many teams already filled holes at left wing this off-season? The L.A. Kings signed Ilya Kovalchuk. The Buffalo Sabres traded for Jeff Skinner. The Florida Panthers landed Mike Hoffman. The Philadelphia Flyers signed James van Riemsdyk. Patrick Maroon went to St. Louis. The San Jose Sharks re-signed Evander Kane. The left winger market suddenly looks a bit dry. It would’ve been fertile had Bergevin moved Pacioretty at the draft, before so many teams addressed their needs.

Come the trade deadline, however, we could see an entirely new group of Pacioretty suitors depending on injuries and the standings. Teams might line up to get him in hopes of landing a Stanley Cup difference-maker. That would create a bidding war, driving his trade value higher than what it is right now.

Would it be a bit uncomfortable to have Pacioretty in Montreal’s dressing room for two thirds of a season? Maybe, but this is a guy voted by his teammates as the captain in 2015. They love him. They’ll go to war with him as long as he’s there. And, hey, if the Habs somehow surprise and end up competing for a playoff spot, they’ll be glad they still have Pacioretty for the stretch run.