Monday, August 24, 2009

Try a Little Tenderness

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.


Andrew Berkshire said...

Great post J.T.! I'm also hoping to see Gui succeed this season, and I agree that he and Lapierre have something special. I'm hoping that with either D'agostini or Sergei on that line Gui will finally play like the big man he is and stand in front of the net.

saskhab said...

He has chemistry with Lapierre, but I hope that isn't the guy he plays best with in the long run. Maxim will at best be a 12-15 goal, 35 point man and Gui still projects to be a pretty decent goal scorer. It'd be really nice if we learned he and Gomez start to develop good chemistry. We've also rarely seen him and Plekanec out on the ice together, so that's a possibility as well.

You generally develop chemistry with the guys who play about the same number of minutes as you do. It'd be nice if Gui became a 15-17 minute player this year and hung with the more talented players.

Speaking of people who haven't earned their spot, it's funny that the same people who diss Gui for that want to put Max Pacioretty, he of 9 professional goals, in the top 6 right out of training camp. Talk about your double standards.

StephD said...

"The traitor"...
Amazing :)

I for one am a big Latendresse fan for all the reasons you stated. He has steadily improved year after year. He's got no ego and understands what areas he needs to work on, and unlike Monsieur Price, when the fans gave him a hard time, he didn't heckly back.

DB said...

In some ways Lats reminds me of a young Peter Mahovlich - a big, talented, inconsistent, underachieving player. It took a long talk with John Ferguson to get Mahovlich to use his size and achieve his potential.

If Martin can motivate Lats the way Ferguson motivated Mahovlich then Gui will earn his picture on the Bell Centre. If Gui continues his inconsistent ways then the only mystery will be who he will play for in 2010/11.

pierre said...

Ovbiously player's developement is a tender situation for any organisation's successes but from a fan's vantage point it is very hard to predict how each and every cases will unfold.

We all hope to see signs of a sudden leap forward from our youngs and from our young veterans that are still in progress mode because we know that the quality of our present game and that of our futur is largelly dependant on those.

We know that Plek and A.K. will need to be at their zenith point this year..... hopefully both will be up to the task and behave like top 6 players of great pedigree.

I dont think we have a one man solution to joined that group yet..... maybe the selected one for 5-on-5 situation will be a different one to joined them on a second PP wave situation i which I could see D'Agostinni being ahead of the others being a right handed player and having a great shot.

Anonymous said...

I discovered your blog last week, when Stanley25 mentioned it on SLR (Fran├žois Gagnon's blog at Cyberpresse). . . then read all entrries since Jan. 01 2009.

I am impressed! Well thought out pieces, showing both knowledge and passion for the game, and well written to boot. I am looking forward to a CH season with you as commentator. Thank you for all the time spent on bringing your points of view to us.

Denis Pelletier

jeffery van den engh said...

an over-hyped french canadian first round draft pick. hmmm. anyway, Latendresse has potential,sure, but he is suppose to be above average at best, never was he expected to be a superstar, not by rational thinking fans anyway. He'll never be fast enough to be a top line winger not on any team. Thirty goals is not unthinkable but he will need as someone above wrote a centerman such as Gomez or better to achieve such numbers. He needs to get angry, he never seems angry enough to me to really grind his teeth for a downright dirty goal, a Barnaby type goal. Just one ugly toothless goal and i will gladly change my tune. His size could be dominating if only he could find that fire in the belly that every good power forward has. When Crosby fights for a goal he fights as though somebody just called his mother a slut. Lats needs that. Not to compare Sid and Gui..two entirely different animals all together, but my point is there.

geezer said...

I am not convinced that at his present rate of development Gui will develop into a Peter Mahovlich. He was too good for the juniors and not good enough for the Bigs, that's true but what's wrong with a few bus rides in the AHL?

DB said...

Geezer - If you look at Mahovlich's stats

you'll see a player who couldn't stick in the NHL for the first 5 years of his pro career. In his 6th year he scored 35 goals because Ferguson convinced him he needed to use his size and play with a chip on his shoulder.

If Lats can learn to use his size and play with a chip on his shoulder then a big jump in his performance is possible. If Lats continues to progress at the same rate as he has then he will be a career 3rd liner at best. All we can do is watch and hope that Lats has a breakout year.

geezer said...

Yes DB, you just proved my point that he should have learned his trade in the minors like the Little M. did for 4 years. There is nothing wrong with the kid and I like him, but is he more deserving or more talented than Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, ken Dryden, Guy Lapointe, etc. etc. et al, all of whom were seasoned in the minors?