Monday, March 10, 2008

As Canadien as Possible #12: Big Bachche

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 Hamilton, and people were both excited about his talent and apprehensive about his youth. His abilities seemed undeniable, but whether or not they were NHL-ready was another question.

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 Montreal stage, communing with his inner hockey spirit and experimenting at a level where his skill would allow him to dominate rather than merely keep up. Perhaps he does not really want to be a power forward and deep down wishes nothing more than to be a tough, solid checker but cannot bring himself to defy the expectations. Perhaps that concussion he gave Rob DiMaio in the 2006 preseason still troubles him. Perhaps he needs a mentor. Perhaps he simply doesn’t care.

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.


olibou said...

Hm. Latendresse's case is pretty simple to my eyes. The kid si the product of a system (canadian midget and junior hockey) that overemphasize ladder-climbing trough physical dominance. More often than else, this is done at the expense of sound technical understanding of the game. Don't forget that, as gifted as Siarhei is, he did have one more season in Junior Hockey (and in a better league) than Latendresse.

As gifted as Latendresse might be, his one obvious flaw is a huge one. The guy's problem isn't that he is slow. He is *unstable*. Center of gravity too high, not that good at moving his feet.. He is world apart from Siarhei on that precise aspect.

The big boy has a style. If anything, he has played the same way all trough his life: throw some big hits to intimidate the opposing defenders, control the puck from the corner so he can give it back to the center, get in the slot and score bunch of goals. Take a look at the following chart:

Player HT/Shift
Steve Begin 0,16
Guillaume Latendresse 0,12
Tom Kostopoulos 0,11
Maxim Lapierre 0,11
Michael Ryder 0,10
Mathieu Dandenault 0,08
Andrei Kostitsyn 0,07
Alex Kovalev 0,05
Sergei Kostitsyn 0,05
Christopher Higgins 0,04
Bryan Smolinski 0,04
Kyle Chipchura 0,04
Saku Koivu 0,03
Mikhail Grabovski 0,03
Tomas Plekanec 0,02
Corey Locke 0,00

I think he still plays the way he always played. He just doesn't have the technical ability, skating-wise, to do much more than put up some correct offensive numbers while pouncing on his share of opposing players. Hockeyspiel is a curious language. Methinks "Power forwards take longer to develop" is their way of saying "The trouble with 6-2 235 pounds dudes is that they can get away with lousy skating abilities up until they reach the NHL; at that point, it always takes some time before we can actually beat into such and such 20 years old guy who always, always dominated on the physical level that the problem is that he skates like an ass."

However talented, there is a reason why latendresse didn't go before the second round... He'll be fine, eventually.

saskhab said...

Latendresse to me has been caught between a rock and a hard place for his entire career... starting at junior. He was considered one of the guys who could go 2nd after Crosby (or at least top 5) heading into his draft year, and then he had an injury-plagued year in which he never fully got comfortable and dropped to 45th in the draft when the Habs finally had enough and traded up for him. He then was the top player in training camp that year and had people talking of him making the team at 18. The Habs sent him back, probably because of his previous junior year moreso than camp performance.

Then, he was fairly dominant in the Q as an 18 year old, had a good camp as a 19 year old again, and the Habs made a choice to keep him rather than have this guy be a man amongst boys in the Q.

He's been up and down, which really was to be expected.

But I do believe that in early January, when the Habs made the Chipchura and Price demotions, Guillaume should've joined them. The problem was, there were too many injuries for them to make that one extra move.

Unfortunately, it looks like it's too late to send him to the AHL now. After he plays 160 NHL games, he is eligible for waivers. That's 160 NHL games including playoff games... so if he plays every game left this year and in the playoffs, no matter how far we go he will be eligible for waivers come the start of next year. He's played 145 games right now.

So it looks like he'll be doing all his development at the NHL level... the AHL option appears closed.

E said...

olibou- i get that latendresse's style is hypothetically as you describe, but i don't see evidence of it in actual games. he throws checks, yeah, but rarely seems to gain puck possession from it, and i don't see him hanging out in the slot very much. i wouldn't describe him as a physically dominant player.

but i'm intrigued as to your explanation of development time. i'd heard the cliche about large players most often applied to defensemen, actually, and it may be the corollary of the common observation that a lot of the guys who peak young are small and fast. however, you seem to imply that it's a feature of the canadian hockey player production system... i'd be curious to know if large guys who come up in other leagues have a similar trajectory.

saskhab- there's not necessarily anything inherently wrong with the trial-by-fire approach of bringing up a young player early, but it doesn't seem to be working for gui. my concern is that, in the nhl, he's doing nothing more or less than keeping up, and i wonder if his 'development' hasn't been sacrificed in the process. for skaters, i think that extra time at the lower levels isn't necessarily a bad thing, even if they far outstrip their competition, because it allows them a bit of freedom to mess around and find their edge without sacrificing the team's well-being.

as an aside, do y'all think latendresse's skating is a fixable problem? every now and then i hear someone saying that he just needs some extra classes or to lose a little weight, but it strikes me that if it was as simple as that, he wouldn't have gotten this far with his mobility as poor as it is.

Yamp said...

I guess I was lucky, because when I was first introduced to the players as a beginner-fan last year (my brother gave me a complete rundown of who-was-who and who-has-which-role(s)), I was told that Latendresse had a lot of potential, but was the kind of player that would develop slowly, so I would need to be patient with him (a fact that most people seem to approve, as, like you stated, it has become cliché-talk). When I asked how long it would probably take Guillaume to reach his potential, I was answered that he was the kind of player that would most likely be at his peek when he’d be around 24-25 years old. “How old is he?” was obviously my next question, and “19” was the answer. Ok. I get it. Long term investment. So I stopped wondering about him, worrying that he was not the superstar that the media seemed to promise, and just kept focussing on watching him grow.

Maybe that’s why I do not seem to share your questioning about Latendresse’s role (or at least your worry). I’ve always assumed that he’d be developing over the next few years, and for me, finding his right place seems part of that development just like his skating ability or shooting accuracy. I’ve seen Guillaume struggle some part of the season, I’ve seen him missing the net over and over again (and I can’t decide if it’s plain bad luck, lack of practise or lack of skill or a mix of all three), but I’ve also seen him winning fights for the puck, having lapses of great defensive play while blocking many shots, be full of confidence and energy after scoring, but slumping back the next game... And still, I keep that mental image of experience being built, strategy testing, trying outs, just hoping that all that experimenting will help Latendresse figuring out where he better stands in the NHL until he hits the right spot and achieves that rare potential I’ve been told he possesses.

Maybe I’m wishful-thinking, but it seems to me he is a bit faster at times on his skates. I was impressed by his performance last night with Kostopoulos and Smolinski against the Ducks, and wonder if he wouldn’t be better off not playing too much with Lapierre, for Maxim is a give’em-the-runaround kinda guy, and obviously Guillaume is more of a get-installed-in-the-zone player. I mean, most people will agree Latendresse is not the fastest of player, and placing him with Koivu, the Kostitsyns or Lapierre can’t be doing him that much good. If Guillaume is destined for a more physical play, pairing him with Bégin or Kostopoulos would seem more intuitive to me (or am I missing something entirely?). I don’t know if the idea of placing him with fast player is an attempt to force Latendresse into stepping on it or...?

E said...

yamp- good points. i think the logic of playing him with the faster players isn't so much that they're faster, but that they're our offensive specialists, which is what he's supposed to be eventually. playing him with fourth line guys who share his physicality and won't leave him behind speed-wise means putting him in a role where he's going to be getting played at points in the game when scoring isn't a priority. it could be that part of the problem with him finding his role is exactly that his potential role is one that we have no other players to model for him. unlike the kostitsyns or plekanec or higgins or o'byrne or lapierre, there's been no opportunity to play him with a veteran who he can 'emulate'. he's got to try to forge his own path. however, i can imagine there are two difficulties with trying to develop him at the nhl level: 1) the team needs to win, which means that if he isn't contributing in a here-and-now way, there's pressure for carbonneau to bench him or reduce his ice time; and 2) eventually, it puts gainey in the difficult position of having to try to decide what sort of rfa deals to give him with incomplete information. at this point, how much would you bet on latendresse becoming a quality power forward, given his current play and the long-shot nature of the role?

yanne said...

My opinion is that Gui was always a man amongst boys. Since childhood he's always been physically dominant and that intimidation factor is what enabled him to thrive. He's now a boy amongst men.

In that regard he has had to make a pretty drastic adaptation. This was not the case for Sergei for example who now plays basically the same game but on a different level. Gui has had to change his game completely as he is no longer the biggest kid on the ice. This kind of transition takes time.

I agree that some time in the AHL would have been good for his development as he would have the role and icetime to grow.

Anyway, remember he is still just a 20 year old kid! In not too long he will become a man and will intimidate opponents again and therefore create space for himself and his teammates.

He has to work hard (on skating especially) but i am confident he will become a dominant player in this league. I don't know of many power forwards have thrived at such a young age, but I can't think of one. Just have a look at Bertuzzi's numbers (the guy he once said he wants to model his game after) for comparison...

olibou said...

I think Yanne has a point concerning the physical dominance factor. I would simply add that I for one do not believe latendresse is adjusting trough a change of style. He is simply adjusting to the diminished (yet still present) advantage his physical dominance brings him. Even for the NHL, he *is* big and strong (he is in the top 30 for hits thrown by forwards in the league...)., the problem is that there are just not that many guys in the opposition that will curl up in a ball after getting hit. The small guys who make it to the NHL are the Siarheis... Tough, speedy little jerks. You can go Hollweg on them and they'll keep coming.

For the style question: I see many points here that leads me to reconsider my opinion (and I certainly will do that in the next few games), but still, for now I insist: I do not believe he has changed his style. It's basic: hit, fetch the puck in the corners for the playmaker and get in position for the shoot. And I believe his (very relative) lack of efficiency is directly linked to an improving but still somewhat deficient skating *technique*, not *speed*. Watch Latendresse and Kovalev skate. The two guys are mostly of the same size, but Kovalev's ability to stay low, to keep his balance is simply staggering. Much of what we call "speed" is, in Kovalev's case, the direct product of superior skating technique, not raw physical explosion (look at AndreiK and Siarhei for that). Latendresse's is at the opposite end of the spectrum, balance-wise. But I think he is improving quite rapidly; I think he will emerge in 2 years from now, maybe even next year. He will never be *faster*. But he can get lower, more stablw, thus more agile, more able to change positions, to follow the ebb and flow of the game. The shot is there, but he just can't get into shooting situations often enough.

In the meantime, I think Gainey is content to let him learn on the job. I mean, how many 4th liners able to score 15-20 goals and be in the top 30 in hits for forward are there across the league? How much is Chad Kilger getting paid these days? For what kind of production? The guy is a NHLer.

saskhab said...

Gui will never be a fast player. His skating should improve, but it's not like he'll ever be able to challenge Plekanec in a foot race or anything. He should work on it, but not at the expense of his own game.

Ryder, for example, is actually quicker than he used to be, and I think in a lot of ways he's a better player, but his role is to score goals, shoot from the high slot, and he gets away from that at times. It's always a tricky balance with players and with teams in general.

People say Montreal is still a pretty soft team, and not gritty enough, but where does one draw the line in making up for a deficiency like that? If you want to get bigger, stronger, and meaner, you might lose your team's strength and identity in the process (speed, creativity). It's a balancing act, and it's the same for the individual as it is for the collective.

I actually expected a bit of a sophmore slump from Gui at the start of the year, and thought some time in the minors would be beneficial. I don't think that time in the minors has neccesarily hurt a guy like Steve Bernier, who has a similar development curve.

We all know the "big players" theory. The problem with that, is sometimes you hold onto a guy and he never pans out... like Kilger, or Isbister. But if you want a Bertuzzi or Leclair (damn that trade) you're going to have to wait it out and trust your coaching staff and training regimen that he's making progress.