Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Where's Max?

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.


Andrew Berkshire said...

It seems like Max Lapierre is the new whipping boy on the Canadiens, especially after and during his suspension. It has gone without notice that through 50 or so games Lapierre had about half the hits Travis Moen had, and the game he got suspended he'd passed Moen for the lead in hits on the team. He's also increased his frequency of hitting the score sheet big time since the Darche callup.

I agree with you that it's too early to write him off, especially since he's an RFA. If Gainey/Gauthier have learned anything from Plekanec, they should sign Lapierre to a 2-3 year deal at lowish money instead of a one year deal, and hopefully get a steal of a deal long term.

Kyle Roussel said...

This season has been the worst case scenario for Lapierre, and nearly all of it is his own doing. You're right, J.T. that he was saddled with junk for linemates. But he showed little of the feistyness that made him so valuable last year. He's done a total regression, and it's sad to see.

He's the next one who's job is on the line. Laraque, Pacioretty, D'Agostini and Latendresse were all dead weight, and were all shipped out of town for either being useless, not ready, or not willing to do the things required of them. Darche and Moore have been pros about their work, and now Max is in the crosshairs. He's a tricky target though, because you have to ask yourself if he's not a little bit protected by his last name? If he were to be let go, Darche and Bergeron would be the team's only 2 francophones, along with Pouliot. I don't want this to be a political debate, but you know given the philosophies of the front office, that it is probably a consideration.

I would not yet give up on Lapierre. I would, however do whatever I had to do to get inside his head and clean up whatever's gone wrong. To me it looks like he drank a lot of his own kool-aid in the off season and was more concerned with his celebrity status than his status on the team.