When my kids were really little, they used to watch The Wiggles as religiously as I watch the Habs. For the (fortunately for you) uninitated, The Wiggles are a four-man singing group of Australians with Beatles envy and a bit of an Elvis complex. Kids love them. Part of their act involves Jeff Wiggle falling asleep in strange places while the other Wiggles croon a little ditty called "Where's Jeff?" It goes, in part, "Where's Jeff? Is he sleeping outside? Where's Jeff? Is he gone for a ride? Where's Jeff? Is he in the countryside..." You get the idea. Anyway, as I was watching the last couple of Habs games, "Where's Jeff" started spinning in my head in regards to Max Lapierre. "Where's Max? Is he on the fourth line? Where's Max? Is he riding the pine? Where's Max? Oh yeah, he's paying a fine..."
Seriously, has anyone missed him for the last four games? I haven't. To be honest, I haven't seen replacement Ben Maxwell do anything noticable either, but he still has inexperience in his defence.
Lapierre had a great chance to be a valuable player for the Habs this season and he's blown it. The passion that drove him to fifteen goals and a reputation as an effective agitator last year seems to have completely vanished, with the exceptions of the games immediately after the departures of Guillaume Latendresse and Georges Laraque, and perhaps two other games out of nearly seventy.
How does a player go from being plus-nine with fifteen goals one year, to six goals and minus-thirteen the next? I think part of it had to do with being saddled with the likes of Laraque and D'Agostini for so long early in the season. Lapierre is the kind of player who needs similar linemates to succeed. Last year, with Tom Kostopoulos using his speed on the rush and his body in the corners, and Latendresse doing some grinding, Lapierre fit in. His goals came from his and Kostopolous' banging around in the crease. This year, with unsuitable players on his line, Lapierre had to do a lot more of the puck carrying and chasing himself. Last year, if he chased the puck in the corner and threw it in front of the net, one of his linemates would be there to do something with it. That didn't happen this season. Now Lapierre has lost every aspect of the game at which he used to be good. If a guy can't score, he's got to be better defensively. Minus-thirteen says Laps isn't doing that very well. If a guy can't score OR keep the opposition from doing so, he'd better be willing to use his body and his fists to stir things up. Lapierre just uses his mouth and that's getting noticed around the league.
The Canadiens were counting on him to play a big role. They needed his speed, size and gritty play on the third line. They could have used his timely scoring. Fortunately for the Habs, Glen Metropolit has stepped up in the role Lapierre was supposed to fill. Now, though, team management has to figure out whether Max will get another shot, or if some of the teammates who've outplayed him this year will be back next year instead.
If Ryan White and Tom Pyatt are ready for full-time spots next year, and assuming Tomas Plekanec is re-signed, that means there will be six spots for bottom-line forwards next year, and one spare. White, Pyatt, Lapierre, Sergei Kostitsyn, Moen, probably Darche, Metropolit and Moore are all candidates to fill those places. Based on their play this year, and making allowances for fitting in the rookies, Lapierre wouldn't make the team.
I'll take a minority opinion on this though, and say I'm not ready to write him off just yet. I can't help remembering Tomas Plekanec last season, saddled with the wrong linemates, trying, but failing, to live up to his potential. If the Habs had decided to give up on him because of that bad season, we'd be watching him put up a point-per-game for someone else right now...grinding our teeth and pulling our hair in the process. Lapierre can be better. The thing with him though, is he's not got the skill of Plekanec. He's got to rely on energy and aggression to be successful, and that's a lot harder to call up consistently than raw talent. I don't know what it would take to get that spark back in him, but he's got a limited time to find it. He's 25 years old this month, and youthful energy is tougher to maintain when a player matures. Lapierre could get it back, and I'd give him a fresh season, with well-suited linemates, to try. If he's still struggling by next Christmas, I'd trade him then. Maybe we'll be surprised at the way he'll respond to another chance.
I'd like it if by this time next year when someone asks "where's Max?" we can say he's a real third-line centre on a bounce-back season.