I don't know if everyone agrees with me, but I really think this year will be a critical one in the career of young Guillaume Latendresse. And more specifically, this training camp.
I think that it will define for this year and into another summer without a contract whether he will ever be more than a 15-goal man, or whether he'll take last year's trajectory as a third liner.
Look at Guillaume Latendresse as a package of skills, it's easy to see where his strengths lie. He has a good head and a great attitude. He has a better feel around the net than the plumbers and can set up and release a shot quickly and with pretty good power and accuracy too. Equally though, his weaknesses are apparent. His skating is sub-par in the NHL, he sometimes wastes energy and is not a top-class playmaker. His defensive play would be OK, but put him against a better skater and he needs a head start – there'll be no making up ground. Many people would put his physical play in the positive column and so would I on some nights. But on other nights, he was Komisarek at the front, hitting for the sake of it and often at the expense of the right play, to be frank.
Third line = way out of NHL
It's clear that Guillaume has some relatively rare skills and the potential to use them, but must do more to establish himself as a scorer. My feeling is that he must find his way onto a scoring line, or at least show some real flourish this season, otherwise risk being a third liner this season and start competing on a line that demands different skills to what he can provide.
It's not that there's anything wrong with being a third liner, but it's just that a) his primary skill (quick and accurate shot) will go to waste and b) he is not a top option as a checker – being slow, prone to putting himself out of position and unused to the remit.
With the Canadiens latest additions up front, and specifically on the wings, Latendresse is really looking down the barrel at a battle for the very last top line spot between himself, Sergei Kostitsyn, Matt D'Agostini and Max Pacioretty.
Though people always want to preach patience with Guillaume, I am starting to feel that lifeline is wearing out for him. For one thing, all his rivals for that ice time are as young or younger than him. None have had as much NHL tutoring. None come close in NHL experience. Should he fall to third in the pecking order in the fall, he won't be able to turnaround and say he needs more time, because he's 200 games into an NHL career that may last 600 games at this rate.
If I were Guillaume then, I would be making sure this summer was the most intense summer of training and practicing I had ever undertaken. I would be looking at September 2009 as the make or break point in my young career – because it is.
Because I like Guillaume, I thought I'd offer some tips:
1) Hone that shot
Gui will never be a better skater than any of his rivals at this late point. Instead, he must make his best skill stand out more. He should work on setting up his shots and taking them quicker.
2) Shoot more often, shoot lower
Shooting percentages across the league are remarkably homogeneous. Non one shoots for 35% and no one really shoots for 5% either unless they are really unlucky. If you can count on about 1/10 shots going in, surely then you'd need to take 300 shots to score 30 goals. Last season Gui had 117 shots on target and 165 all told. From 165 releases towards the net he got, lo and behold, 16 goals. Shooting more is a start.
The next thing would be to shoot lower. Latendresse has that tendency to wait for a perfect opportunity to let off a perfect shot. There won't be 300 opportunities for perfect shots, so to reach that lofty total players have to throw more low quality shots at the net. Among low quality shots, I prefer the low shot because of the way goalies defend them – often having to kick the puck straight back. The boon of more lower shots should tell not only in Latendresse's own totals, but those of his linemates as well.
3) Practice cutting inside
The guy can do it, we've seen him. But on that third line he gets into the Kostopoulos rhythm where it seems that wasting time is the goal and touching the backboards is worth more than a goal. A big man like Latendresse has options others like little Sergei do not, such as cutting inside.
4) Rethink offensive zone positioning
Yes Guillaume is big, but playing on a line with Lapierre and Kostopoulos he was also the one player who should have been in front of the net, the only one with anything close to what you might call hands. Instead, he was often seen in the corner (for which he curiously has won much admiration), but which ultimately led to fewer scoring chances for him and even his line. If he finds himself on a line with Plekanec or Gomez he must find a way to hit and then get back to the front/side of the net quickly. I'd recommend watching a couple of games back, watch his hitting and see how much offensive threat came from it – my feeling is not enough.
5) Practice being the man in front of the net
This is one area the Canadiens have been sorely lacking. And if there is one way that Guillaume could use his size to secure a longer NHL career this could be it. He'll need to think about quick hands in close and ceasing to be afraid to stand there. This could help Gui get on the PP and in one fell swoop change his outlook.
6) Learn to seize the moment
OK, hard to do. But it's often said of good scorers in this league, that they are just in the right place at the right time. If he does nothing else and somehow manages to do this, he may just make it.
Timing certainly comes down to positioning in a lot of ways. But Guillaume must also find a way to look good not just in games when he and his pal Max are together, but also when he gets the golden opportunity to play with a top centre. In the past he's had moments, but fizzled when competition has come along. Last season he started with 10 games on line 1. Though he seemed to be doing OK, he only scored one goal in that time – not a ringing endorsement as a goalscoring option. He did chip in 6 assists, but he clearly was the weaker sister on the line where Koivu and Tanguay had 11 points apiece. His next 5 games, he got another shot at a scoring line but managed only a single goal and not one assist with Lang and Sergei. Consider also that he has been a non-event in the playoffs thus far – this season it was no points and 5 shots in the elimination effort; last season he was benched a few times and did little to offer a remedy to the scoring drought with a lone assist.
Those are my tips for Guillaume. I chose to write about him and not the other options for the top lines, because frankly of the bunch, he could be the best scorer – his best shot is the best shot of the bunch. He offers the fans and the team the biggest upside on his best performances.
And, looking at all four guys he is the one on his last leg.
It's now up to him to show he can deliver those performances with greater frequency.