MONTREAL - Max Pacioretty is quite aware that his days as a Montreal Canadien may be numbered.
It would break the 29-year-old's heart to be traded by the only NHL team he's played for, but changes are expected after the Canadiens plunged to 27th overall this season one year after finishing first in the Atlantic Division.
Pacioretty's name was mentioned frequently at the trade deadline in March and, while he survived that stressful period, crunch time is approaching.
He is entering the final season of a six-year US$27-million contract. The Canadiens must sign him to a new deal or risk losing him for nothing at the end of next season. If they don't intend to sign him, they are almost certain to deal him to another club.
So far, there have been no talks on a new contract.
"I love playing in Montreal," Pacioretty said as players gathered this week for the last time before the off-season. "I haven't played with another player who loves playing here as much as I do.
"I live here all year. I'm invested in the city every day. I'm out every day with the fans and I just love everything about it. But as we all know, hockey was below par this year for the team, for myself, and when that happens everyone has to look for answers. Whether that's changing players or making other moves, I can't control that."
The six-foot-two left-winger is coming off his least productive season since becoming a regular in the Canadiens lineup.
After scoring at least 30 goals in the last five complete NHL seasons, and 15 in the lockout-shortened, 48-game 2012-13 campaign, he plunged to 17 goals and 20 assists in 64 games. He had two fewer points than he did in 44 games in the lockout year.
He was among a handful of Montreal's top players, including goalie Carey Price, to see their numbers drop.
Pacioretty, who had 35 goals and 67 points in 2016-17, looked to be playing a different game this season, trying to battle more for pucks and be more of a playmaker instead of getting open and wiring shots on goal. His 118 hits were a career high, but his shooting percentage dipped to 8.0 per cent.
"It's not like I was only looking to pass to people or set people up," he said. "I look always to be a more complete player.
"I don't want to just be the guy that benefits from the nice feeds and takes the credit away from the guy who makes the plays. I do bring more to the game. I have a big body and speed and I feel I can use that to add elements to my game other than just shooting the puck. It's not like I'm doing things completely different than I was in the past. I'm trying to help out my linemates more by doing more of the work that doesn't get rewarded instead of just camping and waiting for that pass so I can score."
Even if general manager Marc Bergevin said he remains part of the team's plans, Pacioretty is aware of how quickly that can change.
He said he would be sad to go, but added that if he's traded he won't "be a baby about it."
Still, hearing one's name in trade rumours is stressful.
"It was tough flirting with the idea of seeing myself in another uniform but I think at the time, given the way the season was going and the way my season was going, if it were to happen, if I were to get dealt like rumours said I was going to, I was just focused on the hockey part of it and finding my game," he said. "Once the deadline passed I calmed down."
Pacioretty said he likes everything about playing in Montreal. He and his wife, former pro tennis player Katia Afinogenova, and their three children live in the city year-round. He said he would probably continue to return during off-seasons even if he was traded because they like the city's vibe and European feel.
And he feels fans like him and want him stay, even if nearly all players were panned on social media this season for their sub-par play.
"I didn't take much heat from people around the city," he said. "In fact, it's all positive outside this (media) circle and I really mean that.
"I'm in the city every day and if it wasn't positive I wouldn't be in the city every day. I get so much support from the fans. They all tell me they love me. I've never had one negative encounter.
"I know where I stood this year. I had a very down year and it's never happened to me before statistically. So I'll own that and I'll live with it, but to say I got a lot of heat outside of this circle — I disagree with that statement."