Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pressure with a capital "P"

There's a general perception out there that the Habs are going to open this Centennial season under intense scrutiny and even greater pressure. There's the fact of the hundredth birthday celebration itself, first of all. It's going to be a huge splash and the eyes of the hockey world will be focussed on the cradle of the sport. Management, the Gilletts, the city and the players themselves will be expecting results befitting such a momentous anniversary. Then there's the pressure of last year's unexpectedly banner season and the higher performance bar the team has set for itself as a result. Now that the players have revealed the success of which they're capable, nothing less will be acceptable. That's going to be tough to live up to.

But though the whole team will be feeling the scrutiny this year, some players will be humming Queen's "Under Pressure" a little more fervently than others. All the "contract guys"...those in the last years of their current deals... of course, will feel it, since they're playing for raises and personal as well as team numbers. Among the unrestricted group, perhaps Alex Tanguay will be under the greatest scrutiny. Not only does he have to rebound from a poor season last year, he's got to do it in a contract year AND in a new city...one that's well-known for being tough on its stars.

Among the restricted bunch of contract guys, there's a player who'll be feeling another sort of pressure altogether. This is a very important year for Guillaume Latendresse. He's been given every possible chance to succeed with the Canadiens in the last two years, with mixed reviews mostly ending in "...but he's only twenty," or "...has to improve his skating." He's been given plenty of ice time, has been allowed to learn from his mistakes while maintaining his place in the lineup on most nights and has been given opportunities to play with the team's best linemates. Now, at twenty-one, he'll have another chance to show why it was a good idea for the team to let him skip his last year of junior as well as any AHL development time. But all the while he's trying to juggle new fatherhood with earning a new contract, he'll be aware the team's next great hope of developing a power forward, Max Pacioretty, is breathing down his neck. Latendresse has proven he can score goals when he gets close to the net and uses his quick hands to bat the puck home. But he's also proven he doesn't see himself in that role, as he tends to overhandle the puck and try to be more of a finesse player. Pacioretty's style is more straightforward, and he seems to have a better idea of how to use his skills to best advantage.

Of course, there's nothing to say the team can't use two big guys with nice hands around the net. But the fact is, there are limited spots available on a young team like the Canadiens, and if one guy is performing a particular role in Hamilton while the other isn't doing as well in Montreal, well...it won't be long before there's a switch. As yet, Pacioretty has only shown his ability in college and at the Habs' development camp. He'll come into the main camp this month doing his best to unseat someone and steal a roster spot. If that doesn't work, as it probably won't, he'll start the year in Hamilton and do his damnedest to tear up the AHL and make it very tough for the Habs to leave him in the minors. If Max does as well as fans are hoping he will, Gui will be hearing footsteps. The last time that happened, Sergei Kostitsyn ended up with a regular spot and Michael Ryder ended up in Beantown.

I hope Latendresse breaks out this year. From all reports, he's been working like a Trojan all summer and has dropped that pesky baby fat we've all noticed he carried. He's been practicing his skating technique in an effort to develop quicker starts. And he's handled the pressure of being a young French Canadian on his hometown team exceptionally well. Now we'll have to see how he handles the pressure of leaving his apprenticeship years behind as he tries to prove he's growing into the job he's been handed. It'll be tough for him, because he is still just 21 years old. But when the guy trying to steal your spot is only 19, sometimes 21 has to grow up a little faster. I'm rooting for Gui to make the job his. I think he's big enough to stand up under the pressure.

No comments: