Latendresse is a mystery. On the surface of it, there shouldn’t be anything enigmatic about him; he's no elusive European, no moody goaltender. A gigantic, affable 20-year-old with chronically unruly hair, a little too much residual baby fat, and a subdued, diplomatic public persona, he’s having a reasonably good season by the counting numbers- 15 goals, 8 assists.
However, although those numbers are good enough to put him in the lower ranks of the Canadiens laudably diverse scoring corps, he’s been having a rough season. His offensive production has been streaky, his defensive play never particularly remarkable, and most nights he bears the ignominious distinction of Most Invisible Player. He’s been bounced all over the lines, played with an assortment of centers and clicked with none of them. These days he’s most often paired with Lapierre, but although he supposedly has far superior talent, he’s completely overshadowed by the eager agitator’s increasingly innovative experiments in defensive forwarding.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Latendresse made the team last year amidst bubbling enthusiasm and equally roiling anger. Depending on who you asked he was either the Habs’ next great Quebecois prodigy or merely the next great Quebecois publicity stunt. He was 19 then, one of the few Canadiens never to see a day in
The hope was that he would become a power forward. One of the common criticisms leveled against the Habs is that they’re too small, especially up front. In some ways this is an implicit criticism of Koivu, who is indeed a tad on the diminutive side for an NHL figurehead, because overall the Canadiens are a group of fairly average-sized hockey players with a few outliers- Komisarek on the big end, Bouillon on the small one. But more to the point is the fact that they were clearly moving more and more in the direction of a speed-and-skill team, and this left a lingering fear that they would lack the toughness to withstand the attacks of physically punishing opponents.
The power forward is the Holy Grail of hockey archetypes, the perfect confluence of everything Canadian hockey fans want: the imposing size, aggressive temperament, and fanatical work ethic of a beloved fourth-line grinder combined with the scoring instincts of a first-line superstar. Once human cloning is perfected, within three years the first two lines of all six Canadian teams will be comprised entirely of Jarome Iginlas and reverse-Iginlas flanking Sidney Crosbys. In the meantime, however, the quest for the power forward remains one of the prevailing aspirations of almost every GM.
It’s a difficult quest, because it’s difficult set of skills to integrate, and the paths previously trodden in pursuit of such players are littered with failed attempts. Career checkers whose junior scoring exploits were never replicated in the pros, hulking minor leaguers who lacked the speed and maneuverability for the New NHL, brittle 30-year-olds whose bodies proved insufficiently durable to preserve their skills after one too many nasty scrums. Pylons, sloths, cripples, psychopaths- these are the ugly remains of the unsuccessful power forward.
So when I say that people hoped, and still hope, that Latendresse will become a power forward, I want you to understand the full magnitude of that expectation; both how passionately it is desired and how difficult it would be to achieve. Because it seems to be a cliché of hockey player development that big players in physically demanding roles take longer to mature into their potential than smaller ones, most people are willing to concede Latendresse a longer growth trajectory than they might for, say, Sergei Kostitsyn. But when people look at Guillaume for shades of what he might become, they’re looking for the telltale signs of the power forward.
This, I think, is why analysts seem to find him such a disappointment in spite of his adequate numbers. For although Latendresse has skills, his game remains curiously shapeless, his on-ice persona non-existent, and his role on the team vague. The paradoxical combination of massive size and soft hands- the tenuous mix that makes one speculate he’s power forward material- remains an awkward one. It’s as if he’s two players with two different styles vying for control of one body; he can be either physically threatening or offensively threatening, but not both at the same time. He seems to be indifferent to his own size, almost embarrassed of it. Often his play lends itself to the most unhockeyish descriptors, words like ‘reticent’ and ‘unassuming’. This is possibly in part because he’s an excruciatingly slow skater by Canadiens standards, and therefore often late into the play; he gets few exciting odd-man rushes. But even in the corners he seems almost- God help him- polite.
It’s not necessarily unusual for a young player to struggle to find his form, but this year he compares unfavorably to the rest of the Canadiens’ vaunted youth movement. The players around him, even those who came up after him, are all quite defined in spite of their immaturity. Sergei Kostitsyn, not even up for the whole season, has already asserted himself as a quick, tenacious, and scrappy offensive sparkplug; his brother Andrei a more aloof scoring artist. Lapierre has enough enthusiasm and swagger for an entire middle-range junior team, on the blueline O’Byrne is equal parts meditative and adhesive, even Grabovski jumps out every shift determined to display the fierce agility that constitutes the best part of his distinctive style. Amidst all these interesting emerging characters, Latendresse is a void. The problem isn’t that he’s bad. He’s not bad. And it’s not that he hasn’t achieved his potential yet. The problem is that, although we can all see the potential in him, we cannot see the aspiration. There is no sense of development in his play, no sense of becoming. Day to day and week to week, he grows neither better nor worse; nor any closer to a clear role other than ‘rookie’. He’s treading water on a team where most players are doing the 100-meter butterfly.
I cannot ascertain the cause of this. Perhaps he needed to spend some time in the minors, away from the
It’s a sad situation, both for him and the Canadiens. He’s a good hockey player, and it’s well within the realm of possibility that he may yet be a great one. But he needs to define himself to improve any further. He needs to find his game, even if it isn’t exactly the one anticipated for him, or he will slowly but surely fade out of this team- the last minor Quebecois disappointment.