Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Misunderstood Enigma Of Guillaume Latendresse

Not much, or at least never enough, is written about Guillaume Latendresse in the English media.

It's unfortunate because it would help remove what seems to have become a certain stigma regarding the big Quebec born winger.

I don't want this post to take on "a language issue" appearance, but it seems to me that if the english speaking only readers were more informed about how Latendresse is doing, they might be less inclined to criticize him unfairly.

And Latendresse is often criticized, only some of it fair.

Perhaps if readers were to learn what a frank young man Latendresse is, how he is constantly concerning himself with his play and progression, and how his coach appreciates not only his dedication but his willingness to learn, then they would find a sympathetic player who they would then better understand.

Latendresse has his weaknesses and has had his glaring moments of looking out of place, but he is an interesting package to develop and groom. His size and shot were NHL calibre at 18 and he has the potential to became a solid power forward when his complete game rounds out.

What I've always found most concerning was Latendresse's reading of the play between the blue lines because of his skating concerns. There are many laments about his skating stride, but it is his turns that need work most. His top speed going in a straight line is quite good and deceiving for a big player.

Nevertheless, his quickness in takeoff is that of a big player. When Latendresse becomes more adept at reading the play, his reaction time will improve with it. Once his skating turns gain more fluidity, combined with a better understanding for reading the plays that are breaking around him, his most glaring weakness will be less concerning.

As he works out these facets of the game, he continues to do many other things well that are not brought up often enough.

Recently, Latendresse has matched last season's goal total, but it would be unfair not to underline that he has done so with less top line and powerplay time than last season. He is fifth on the tean for goals scored. He has also made improvements defensively, going from a rookie like minus 20 to a more respectable minus 4 this season. He continues to throw hits at every opportunity, ranking third on the team in that category. Last season, he led all rookies in hits.

There is no statistic that tallies missed scoring opportunities, but it would be my guess that Latendresse is up there on the team as well. For the longest time he was stranded at 14 goals and seemed positively snakebitten around the net. It was good work that led him to being in position for the opportunities to come, and perhaps timing and confidence that led to them being missed. It is another area of Latendresse's game that will improve with dedication and hard work.

Often, it has been wondered aloud why Latendresse was never deemed worthy of a stint in the AHL in order to work on these and other facets of his game. With players such as Maxim Lapierre, Kyle Chipchura, Mikhail Grabovski and Carey Price all being Bulldogs at one point this season for different reasons, many assumed that Latendresse would also profit from such a stint.

His name is often brought up in regards to the unequal or preferential treatment of certain players because he never suffered the demotion many felt he had coming. It is then that the language nonsense comes into play, with suggestions that the team may fear some kind of backlash the moment Latendresse would be Hamilton bound.

I think that type of thinking is utter rubbish!

The Canadiens are in the business of grooming players, regardless of birthplace. That Latendresse happens to be french speaking is entirely inconsequential to his development as a hockey player.

Mentioned as well, negatively, is coach Carbonneau's view of the player. There is an obvious appreciation of Latendresse's skill set by the coach, and the work ethic of the player is constantly being monitored. He was given a press box seat on two occasions, and kept out of the starting lineup for an additional pair of games after being injured earlier in the year. It's far from a free pass for the player.

Perhaps the reason for Latendresse not being demoted lies in Bob Gainey and Carbonneau's assessement of where the player is at both physically and mentally. In this organization, players are sent back to Hamilton to work on certain aspects of their game, and not simply as punishment. It is important that players going to the Bulldogs are sent there in focus, and not with their tails between their legs.

It could be that Gainey and Carbonneau feel that Latendresse is best off continuing to work on his game at the NHL level. It is likely that their assessment tells them that this is where Latendresse's challenges lie and where his steps need to be measured.

When the decision was made for Latendresse to make the jump to the NHL from junior, these were surely scenarios that were discussed. They obviously didn't promote him to render him an AHL'er a season later.

The Canadiens brass have gotten good marks lately for their patience in dealing with young players brought into the team at fairly advanced stages. It has been eons since the Habs have had so many 20 and 21 years old on the team, learning as they go. The names of Sergei Kostitsyn, Carey Price and others are cited as examples of where the Habs have had the patience to let rookies make mistakes and learn from them. Yet, Latendresse is rarely mentioned in the same breathe as them.

The language issue does come into play in a realistic way for Latendresse as the focus on him from the get go was overblown to the max. It can't be easy for players from the Montreal area to deal with the pressure, and Latendresse has handled it all quite admirably for a 20 year old.

When I watch Latendresse play, I look at his progression and his intensity level to judge if he is the right track. So far, the strides he has made have not been huge ones, but there is consistant progression in his adaptation to the game around him. He has been given different roles and linemates in his two seasons with the Habs but has yet to find his true niche with regular line partners. Familiarity will go a long way towards helping cement Latendresse's role with the team and I see him as fitting in well on a crash and bang line with Maxim Lapierre and another player who brings grit and emotion.

Often with young players on the Canadiens, I look back into their history to find comparable situations with players who have the same tool set. Latendresse reminds me of none other than Yvon Lambert, another burly winger whose skating skills were suspect when he first turned pro.

Lambert was drafted by Detroit from the Quebec junior leagues and was slow to develop in the Red Wings system. After a trade brought him into the Habs fold, he was sent to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs for some grooming and he joined the Habs two seasons later.

Curiously, Latendresse and Lambert both played their junior days in Drummondville, and the similarities do not end there. Both players bring the same game, and Lambert learned to profit most from his size by throwing solid hits and being immovable in the crease. Despite a skating style that would best be described as abrasive at first, Lambert learned defensive positioning under Scotty Bowman and was never a detriment to the Habs on the ice. His slot readiness and shot made him a second unit power play regular, and his role became well defined once teamed with Mario Tremblay and Doug Risebrough.

Together the unit were used to specifically get under the skin of opponants, and Lambert went on to notch 6 seasons of more than 20 goals with the Canadiens. If such totals do not sound like much, consider that the trio were often the Habs thrid or fourth line on many night.

What differs greatly between the development of Lambert and Latendresse was that the former spent two years in the minors with the Voyageurs before being called up. In hindsight, the time spent there was beneficial to him.

As to whether the same treatment would have, or still would, befit Latendresse in the same manner in point moot now. Latendresse made the Canadiens at the start of the 2006 season after being one of their best players in two successive training camps. The Habs had an opening then, and he filled it. Lambert joined the Canadiens after the 1971 Stanley Cup, and worked hard for two seasons to crack a more established lineup.

This is new era for the Canadiens as they have begun to draft with the same steady hands that guided the team during it's 1970's heyday. Back then, they were often criticized for not giving the kids enough of a chance to develop but it was perhaps a reflection of how strong the Habs were drafting - they just couldn't keep everyone. Later on, in the 1980's and 1990's, when their drafts were less successful, the team was termed to be too hard on it's young players, and often gave up on them before seeing what they could bring at the NHL level.

It takes many different opinions to decide what to do with individual players and scenarios. One thing is for certain, no across the board policy for all players and situations is correct. Often it will be the player's showing that dictates how soon he is an NHL'er, as evidenced in the callup of Sergei Kostitsyn after only 20 or so games with Hamilton earlier this season.

Curiously, all of Kirk Muller, Doug Jarvis, and Bob Gainey made the jump almost straight from junior, with Gainey seeing a whole 6 games as a Voyageur in 1973. Carbonneau spent two full seasons before being called up, essentially taking Jarvis' place and number in 1982. This might represent why there seems to be different philosophies when it comes to handling the Canadiens youth.

In the case of Latendresse last season, the risk was minimal, as he could have always been sent back to junior. Such a scenario might have been deemed neccessary earlier on, but when Latendresse was given a more involved role he started putting up points and the decision was made to keep him in the NHL for the season.

This year, the watch has been on his work ethic and progression and the decision not to give him some Hamilton time likely lies in Gainey's view that there aren't the precise elements for linemates in Hamilton to help Latendresse along at the moment. It could also be a case of when sending down Latendresse, it puts back the progression of other players on the farm as well. Since the recall of Mikhail Grabovski, there are only so many offensive centerman on the Bulldogs to spread around.

There are many circumstances that can play into a decision that can have unforeseen consequences. When sending a player down the goal is not to set him back but set him up with the best possible surroundings.

In any event, the decision in Latendresse's case has been made. For the role he is being groomed to fullfill on the team, he has shown steady enough progress to remain with the club. It is always tougher to analyze what a player brings when 90% of his game relates to what is done before he gets to the puck, as opposed to when he is seen carrying it. Finesse is not Latendresse's game, nor should it be, but it is often something about him that is critiqued unfairly.

The final judgement on Guillaume Latendresse will be measured by his timing for being in the right place at the precise moment his skills are needed there. Whether it is delivering a crunching hit behind the net, crashing the slot for rebounds or passes, or simply being positioned smartly when the play heads the other way, this is where it will be determined how successful his adaptation is going.

Here are two translated articles, similar in nature from Le Journal and La Presse that speak of what goes on with Latendresse between games. They perhaps show a side of him that is not as commonly known by non readers of these papers. It sheds a light on the dedication of the young player becoming a pro.

Latendresse Working Hard To Improve His Conditioning by Pierre Durocher

Playing alongside of Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder on Saturday, Guillaume Latendresse played a solid game and netted his 16th goal of the year. In 15:31 of ice time, he had two shots on goal and was credited with two hits.
"My role is different when playing with Koivu", says Latendresse. "I'm expected to produce and things went well on Saturday. Now it has to continue."

The 20 year old winger has matched his goal production from last season, his first in the NHL. There's a chance he could reach the 20 goal plateau.

"I'm happy to reach 16 because I have had less powerplay time this season", he noted.
Latendresse mentions that he spends alot of time in the gym, as he has a tendency to put on weight easily.

"I'm putting in extra hours with Roland Melancon after the on ice workouts, and spending a lot of time with Francis Bouillon in the gym. We have our little routine that we do."

"Last season I spent less time doing those things. Scott Livingstone was giving me pushes to go", Latendresse admits.

Latendresse noted that he plans to emulate the practice taken on by team mate Tom Kostopoulos, who's been seen wearing weights attached to his skates in practice.

Coach Carbonneau has been impressed with Kostopoulos' speed in recent games.

"I think it's a good idea. When the weights are removed, things feel lighter. I'm going to try it out", he says.

More Off Ice Working Out For Latendresse by Marc - Antoine Godin

Guillaume Latendresse is straight up. Yesterday, he spoke about how his training habits had taken on a more serious note than the year before.

"These weren't things I was doing regularly last season. It was Scott (Livingstone) who would say "you have to do it". This season I have a routine with Francis Bouillon and I see a big difference from last season."

"I'm also doing extra work with Roland Melancon. He's pointed out that if I were to work on improving my speed, it would also improve my longevity."

Latendresse has dropped a few pounds. Surely the work habits have something to do with it.

Here are five You Tube clips and compilations showing Latendresse's best moments in his two seasons so far.


Anonymous said...

Good commentary.

I wish to add tree observations:

First, I think big body players need more time to adjust to the next level that is the NHL. Simply put, the advantage their size gives them use to be enough to perform in the minors. When they start playing in the NHL, they need to learn to play with energy beacause size is no longer enough to intinidate and give them the space on the ice to perform. So they have to learn to take the hit and that they need to keep their feet moving;

Second, it is because he could not bee sent to the AHL last year that he made the jump directly to the NHL. My guess is that the Habs did not want to send him back to the Q and therefore had no other option than keeping him in Mtl. I also guess that they then took the commitment to give him at least two full years before considering moving him. The bet being he will be better in 2008-2009 with two years of experience in the NHL than he would have been with one more year of Junior and one year of AHL experience. For my part, I think this reasoning is right. But there is always the risk that by bringing him to the NHL to fast, you will destroy his confidence and "burn" your prospect. To avoid this, I feel the team has to communicate to the player that they know he has lots to learn, that they are willing to teach him and give him time to evolve. This implies that you don't send him down in his second year because that would give the player the impression you regret keeping him in Mtl the year before;

Third and last, if you consider his offensive output with his icetime, Latendresse is contributing to the habs success nicely. If you add to that the fact he delivers good hits and doesn't make so many defensive mistakes, we should all consider he is developping according to plan;

Robert L said...

You are absolutely right on all three observations.

On CKAC this morning, Jacques Demers was talking about giving Latendresse a more defined role so that he could carve out an identity on the team. He also noted that former Habs player and current Canucks scout Lucien Deblois believes that Latendresse is ahead of Todd Bertuzzi at the same stage of development.

Both Deblois and Demers, made the same points as you and I, that it takes longer for a bigger man whose skating is not quick to adjust to all facets of the game.

Demers put alot of emphasis on the term "identity" in regards to what Latendresse needs most now.

The former coach also compared Gui to Steve Shutt, which I found very interesting.

Thanks for comments!

DKerr said...

If Guy were down in Hamilton and had 20 goals by now, the same folks calling for his demotion would be calling for him to be back with the big club. He has over 30 goals in just under two seasons and how old is he (21)? He worked hard on tonights clinching goal, getting more helpers now that he is with scoring linemates. Leave him alone, the team is playing well enough to let him develop.

Robert L said...

DKerr - I couldn't agree more. I was happy for him tonight. It was quite a pass he made.

Anonymous said...

I hope the Habs don't give up on Latts...he reminds me of Leclair when he was with us. They used to call him Marmaduke when he helped us win our last cup in '93 due to his awkward skating and size.
Then after we gave him away to Philly, Leclair blossomed to become one of the best power forwards in the game.
Give Latts some time and he'll be a fan favorite for years to come after he gets his game together and gels with the right line mates.
We are in first place in the conference and he isn't hurting the team, so benching, demoting or trading him would be foolish. The team is young in terms of the many new faces, and so are many of our players...letting them grow together is in our best interest.
In Bob we trust!