MONTREAL – Accustomed to coaching some of the best players in the NHL on a nightly basis, Dan Bylsma recognizes world-class talent when he sees it.
Having seen Max Pacioretty torch his Pittsburgh Penguins for two goals at the Bell Centre in November, Bylsma knows how quickly the young power forward can change a game. About to count the 25-year-old winger among his crop of American Olympians looking to mine gold in Sochi, the Team USA bench boss has already experienced Pacioretty’s ability to be a difference-maker on the ice.
“We got to see [his talent] first-hand there in Montreal. He intercepted a pass and busted in and scored with a shot, and then he went around a defenseman, made a move and scored another. I wasn’t really happy about it,” cracked Bylsma, who admits the manner in which Pacioretty overcame an early-season hamstring injury before returning to form and exploding offensively ultimately caught the eye of Team USA brass leading up to the final roster announcement on New Year’s Day.
“When you look at Max’s skating ability and his size and goal-scoring ability, that’s where we were drawn to Max. The numbers he’s put up offensively certainly put him on the map,” continued the 2011 Jack Adams Award winner, referencing the New Canaan, CT native’s standing as the Canadiens’ current leader in goals, game-winning tallies and shots on goal.
Bylsma has also seen the Olympic rookie emerge as a perfect fit for the type of squad the reigning silver medalists were intent on fielding in Russia, one that features plenty of firepower in forwards like Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski, Paul Stastny and James Van Riemsdyk.
“When we put the team together, we wanted to be a good skating team and take the big ice into consideration. We thought we could be a good skating team with speed and intelligence. We also wanted to be a team that we thought would be tough to play against,” mentioned Bylsma, who is in his sixth season behind the Pittsburgh bench, and recently became the winningest coach in Penguins history.
“There are two things in particular with the big ice,” added Bylsma, whose contingent has been slotted in Group A alongside Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia. “One was skating and the ability to play with speed, and Max adds to that. With respect to intelligence, you can’t be a team that just runs around on big ice. We’re going to need to play with smarts and intelligence and that’s appealing about Max and his game.”
That, and the fact that Pacioretty, who has twice before sported the stars and stripes internationally, affords Team USA a measure of flexibility up front that should prove invaluable as Bylsma and assistant coaches, Peter Laviolette, Todd Richards and Tony Granato work tactically to match wits with the opposition.
“In terms of Max’s role, it’s all about his versatility. We’ll possibly see him as a guy on the power play with his shot in the middle of the ice. I also see him as a player who can play up and down the lineup, who can play high with a skill group or who can play in a fourth line situation,” noted Bylsma, who guided the Penguins to a Stanley Cup title in 2009. “I don’t think at this point he’s penciled into one spot in particular, but with his skating ability, size, speed and ability to score goals, I could see him in a couple of different roles.”
Whatever role Pacioretty is eventually assigned overseas, the man charged with leading 25 players to a coveted gold medal believes the Canadiens sniper has the intangibles to be a bona fide team leader, despite being a newcomer to the Olympic hockey ranks.
“It’s an interesting group to look at. We’re not an old group, but we have a lot of captains and a lot of captain material on our team, guys who have been or are captains of their club teams. We feel like that’s the type of player that we have, and that’s the type of player Max is,” underlined Bylsma. “We tried to pick a team that had that characteristic about it, and Max is a big part of that.”
Pacioretty will kick off his Olympic career with a preliminary round matchup against Peter Budaj and the Slovaks on Feb. 13, 2014.
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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