Most teams could only hope to have a draft like the Montreal Canadiens did in 2007, selecting Ryan McDonagh, Max Pacioretty, and P.K. Subban with their first three picks. McDonagh would ultimately be dealt before he could ever dress for Montreal, sent as the centerpiece in the Scott Gomez trade, one which overwhelmingly favored the New York Rangers. Subban and Pacioretty, along with Carey Price, went on to form the core of some formidable Canadiens teams in the mid 2010’s. Following the 2015-16 season, needing to rebound from their first playoff miss in several years, Montreal dealt Subban in one of the biggest one-for-one deals in not only the league’s history, but sports history, sending him to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber.
The Subban for Weber swap helped Montreal rebound to a playoff berth in 2016-17, but a dreadful 2017-18 forced the organization to re-think things and just before teams were set to hit the ice for training camp, they dealt their star forward and team captain in Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas, having burst onto the scene in their first season just a year prior, were looking to make a splash in order to hopefully get over the hump and win the Stanley Cup, falling just short in their first try. Acquiring the regular 30-goal-scorer wasn’t cheap though, Vegas paying handsomely in the amount of Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick. The return, put plainly, sounds large, but perhaps fair considering the practice of giving something to get something, Vegas giving up a solid veteran point producer, a then-unproven prospect, and a second-round pick out of their bevy of draft picks and receiving a guaranteed star who immediately signed an extension in return. But, with the benefit of time and context, the perception of the deal now has certainly changed.
To give some perspective on how dynamic this trade ended up being for the Golden Knights, the Canadiens acquired a 60-point forward, a prospect who would become one of the young faces of their franchise, and a second-round pick and there is seemingly less to say on their end. Moving Pacioretty, a star and captain, was surely not an easy move for the Montreal organization to make, but one they felt necessary, especially given the return. Tatar would go on to have 58 and 61 point seasons, the latter coming in just 68 games. His third and final season with the team, 2020-21, saw him dip to 30 points, albeit in 50 games in the COVID shortened campaign, but with just five playoff games amid a deep playoff run. Worth mentioning, the second-round pick was unceremoniously flipped to the Los Angeles Kings for a third and fifth-round pick.
The real prize in the trade, and one that perhaps keeps Vegas management and fans up at night is Suzuki. The 13th overall selection in 2017, Vegas’s second of that evening, Suzuki hadn’t yet debuted for Vegas before he was dealt to Montreal. After the move, the forward spent another season in the OHL, where he wasn’t immune to trade either, dealt midseason from the Owen Sound Attack to the Guelph Storm. Still, none of it phased Suzuki, who had another outstanding junior season. The young forward made his NHL debut for Montreal the following season, finding breakout success in the shortened 2020-21 season, playing a pivotal role in Montreal’s near miss of a Stanley Cup. Following that season (more specifically, October), The Canadiens inked Suzuki to an eight-year, $63MM extension beginning in 2022-23 with the expectation that he could lead the next great set of Montreal teams.
The Vegas side of this blockbuster is a lot murkier. They certainly gave up a lot to get Pacioretty, but that isn’t always the issue with a trade. In fact, the winger brought back as much if not more value than they were expecting. Point for point, Pacioretty had some of his best seasons in Vegas, highlighted by a 51 point performance in 48 games during the shortened 2020-21 season, the only time he hit the point-per-game mark in his career. The real issues for the Golden Knights would be two-fold: (1) money, and (2) when all was said and done, what went in and what went out.
Upon acquiring the Montreal captain, the Golden Knights immediately signed him to a four-year, $28MM extension that began in 2019-20. That deal was fine at the time, Vegas then still in the envious position of being competitive but also utilizing their cap to help other teams for the right price. But, as the contract went on, Vegas continued to spend liberally to reward their successful core and also bring in new assets to help them out. With that, their cap situation became tighter and tighter and Pacioretty’s $7MM cap hit grew more and more imposing. Finally, with the addition of Jack Eichel and his $10MM cap hit part-way through last season, the bubble was set to burst this offseason and Vegas needed to shed a big contract. That would end up being Pacioretty.
As talented as Pacioretty still is, his $7MM cap hit on top of his recent injury history, made taking him on a questionable decision for many teams. Vegas was able to find a suitor, and though they didn’t have to pay anything significant to offload his contract, they received merely future considerations for a player who had 194 points in 224 games for them over the previous four seasons (as well as Dylan Coghlan).
The other troubling aspect of this deal is a completely separate trade made several months prior. At the 2018 trade deadline, with assets in hand and a surprising playoff berth in sight, Vegas made a splash by acquiring Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings. Tatar, like Pacioretty here, didn’t come cheap, as Vegas sent a first, second, and third round pick to Detroit to make it happen. The Czech winger gave Vegas just eight points in 20 regular season games on top of another two points in eight playoff contests ahead of the instant trade. The reason the earlier Tatar trade is important is to consider the context: Vegas, in effect, traded Suzuki, a first, two seconds, and a third for 28 underwhelming games of Tatar and four seasons of Pacioretty, who they then traded away for almost nothing after he actually stepped his production up.
Another interesting wrinkle to all of this, but not one that absolves Vegas of their questionable trade tree, is that Pacioretty tore his Achilles after the trade to Carolina, forcing him to miss at least six months of the upcoming season. Of course, Vegas didn’t know this would happen when they made the deal, preserving the questions regarding their logic in the handling of the forward. Realistically, had this happened before the trade, Vegas could have utilized LTIR with Pacioretty, but had he been ready to return ahead of the playoffs, it would have left the team in a difficult position.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as the saying goes, and that applies to any transaction, but the Pacioretty-to-Vegas trade from four years ago today is a fascinating retrospective into roster, cap, and asset management. Vegas gave up plenty for Pacioretty, but it was most likely worthwhile as they got back arguably more than they bargained for. But after four seasons and just one more to go under their current commitment, the team essentially walked away from their player while Montreal continues to reap the reward with one of the league’s most exciting young stars. One question to ponder as we consider these last four years: how is this viewed, all else the same, had Vegas won a Stanley Cup with Pacioretty in the fold?