Two years ago I arrived in Montreal for the Canadiens' third home game of the season, against the Buffalo Sabres. (Incidentally, the game in which Kyle Chipchura scored his first NHL goal, but I digress.) Anyway, as the taxi headed away from Trudeau on its route downtown, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of Canadiens advertising everywhere. I mean, I knew hockey is the only game in town in Montreal, so the fact that Habs' logos were pervasive didn't surprise me. But the "faces" the team had chosen for its blanket marketing campaign did. Instead of pushing Captain Koivu or Andrei Markov, the team's best player, the team decided to go young and go local. So the larger-than-life images of Chris Higgins, Maxim Lapierre, Guillaume Latendresse and the traitor were everywhere that season. I could understand Higgins and the traitor...they were former first-round draft picks who seemed to represent the future of the team. But Lapierre and Latendresse baffled me. Except for being local boys, they really hadn't proven much in the NHL. In half a season the year previous, Lapierre had tallied just twelve points. Latendresse fared slightly better, with 29 points in 80 games. It didn't surprise me when Lapierre went to Hamilton out of training camp, embarrassing the team's marketing people. Latendresse, however, managed to hang on and match his rookie season's goal total.
Now, here we are two years later with Higgins and the traitor collecting paycheques elsewhere. Lapierre seems to have found a new gear to his game and it looks like the third-line centre job on the big team is his to lose. Latendresse, though, is still something of a mystery. Can he be a real power forward? Is he a top-six guy? Can he eventually find a way to put all his tools together and carve out a permanent role for himself? Of all the players I want to see succeed this season, Latendresse is right up at the top of the list.
I have to admit, Gui has never been one of my particular favourites among the Habs of the last few years. He's always seemed sort of nondescript to me. He was a big man who didn't really use his body that much. And he was a guy with soft hands who didn't light it up much either. He wasn't a great skater and not much of a fighter. He had the size to be dangerous in front of the net, but never really went where he needed to go to be effective. He's always been the guy who was too good for junior but not quite good enough for the NHL and who didn't qualify for anything in between.
It's been a bit of a hard road for him, though, despite the snide comments from fans and media about his having been handed a job in the NHL without really earning it. At one point, he was ranked in the top ten overall in draft projections for his year. A shoulder injury, poor world junior tournament and a concussion in the two seasons before his draft saw him drop out of the top fifty junior players on Central Scouting's list. Still, he showed up at his first pro camp raring to go, and he scored two PP goals and assisted on another in his very first pre-season game. At that point, the expectations...already high for a big francophone kid with hands...started to really take off. It didn't lower the bar any when fans started chanting "Gui! Gui! Gui!" at him, reminiscent of the adoration showered down on the great Guy Lafleur thirty years earlier. So, Latendresse had a great camp but ended up going back to junior. He came into Montreal a year later and did it again. The team at that point really had no choice but to keep in the NHL.
So there he was, nineteen years old, the first teenager to crack the Canadiens lineup in decades. A big local boy into the bargain. He was instantly a hero, without having proven a thing. Unfortunately for him, though, he wasn't really a hero. He wasn't Lafleur, or even anything close. His presence on the team stirred up a wave of adoration and expectation that he couldn't possibly justify with his play on the ice.
But...and this is why I'm rooting for him this year...he's handled himself with a grace well beyond his years in the face of all of that. He calmly dealt with Patrick Roy's public accusation that he was only on the team because he was French. He quietly dealt with fans, without getting a fat head or becoming a notorious party boy. He was told his skating needed work and he needed to lose weight, so he worked like a dog all last summer to make that happen. When you consider Latendresse came out of the same draft as Carey Price, you realize how young he really is. Price is getting every bit of leeway his youth and inexperience allow, but Latendresse, despite having dealt with the pressure and expectations of Montreal's hockey faithful in a much more mature manner than Price has, is rejected out of hand by many when he can't hold down a spot on the first line.
I think Latendresse has the tools to be a really effective NHL player. His goals-per-game total increased last year, and he likely would have cracked the 20 barrier if he'd stayed healthy. He has a really special chemistry with Lapierre, and I think with a good winger on that line, Latendresse has the potential to start making a name for himself this year. I was surprised to see a stat recently that shows Latendresse is the fourth-highest scoring NHL player from his entire draft class, behind only Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, and Paul Stastny. Not bad, I think.
Anyway, I really hope this is Gui's season. He's got the talent and he's got the opportunity. This is his chance to show why the team was right to put his face on all those posters two years ago.