Rock scholars believe that Axl Rose, the lead throat and deep thinker behind Guns N' Roses, was warbling about the sweet mysteries of love moreso than NHL player development theory back in the Appetite for Destruction days, but the lesson behind the words still applies. Avoid the temptations of instant gratification and the long-term payoff will be so much sweeter.
Easier said than done in the penny-pinching post-lockout period, sure. But for a cautionary glimpse into the value of Axl's approach, take a look at the Montreal Canadiens. In particular, the career momentum of Guillaume Latendresse and Matt D'Agostini.
Both wingers were tabbed by the Habs in the lucrative 2005 draft that also produced Carey Price and Sergei Kostitsyn. Latendresse, a burgeoning power forward with soft hands and Frankenstein feet, was taken 45th. D'Agostini, an undersized stinger with a penchant for making things happen, was selected 190th. Both were invited to camp that fall, but that's where their fates diverged.
Just 18, Latendresse was on the fast track. He made an immediate impression in camp, silencing those who criticized his skating with courage in the corners and a deft touch around the net. And though he eventually was returned for one more injury-shortened season of junior hockey in Drummondville, he would eventually skip an apprenticeship in the AHL, graduating directly to the Canadiens roster the following year.
Why the rush? There was pressure to fill a particular role, for one. A team that relied on too many undersized forwards -- or too many who played as those they were -- the Habs were desperate for a big body, someone who could assert his authority in the offensive zone. Coming in at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Latendresse certainly looked the part.
And as a francophone, he became a rallying point for the fans who wanted to see one of their own in the bleu, blanc et rouge. It's wrong to suggest his heritage earned him the job ... but fair to say it didn't exactly work against him, either.
Still, from the very beginning, there were signs that Latendresse was being rushed. Even as he scored 16 goals that season, the unrefined state of his game was apparent. No, that's being too nice. The kid was, and is, raw. Not just in his understanding of how to play as a pro, but his inability to maintain consistency. The talent is there, but the reliability of his effort is missing. As a result, the offense has dried up and with it, his confidence.
Now, at 21, he's become a spare part. He played briefly, and inconsequentially, in Thursday's loss to Tampa Bay after having spent the previous four games sampling the Bell Centre's press box popcorn. He has just two goals on the year but worse his development has stalled. At 21, Latendresse isn't much more than what he was at 18.
The Habs painted themselves into this corner. At this point, he can't be sent down to the minors to work out his problems because he's subject to waivers and, cold hands aside, there are probably a few teams who believe they could be the ones to get the best out of him. But they can't wait for him when there are players ready to contribute now. The concern is that if he's ever to move his game forward, it might have to be somewhere else.
While Latendresse is struggling to contribute to the team, the slow roasted D'Agostini has emerged from a two-year stint in the minors to play a key role in Montreal's recent surge.
Assigned to Hamilton of the AHL after his final junior season, D'Agostini didn't just take the opportunity to improve on his game. He acquired the skills to re-invent himself, to become whatever Montreal needed him to be.
Back in his junior days with the Guelph Storm, D'Agostini's skill level allowed him to lurk around the perimeter, to wait for offensive opportunities to present themselves. It was a clean way to make a living -- and the most direct path to a life in sales rather than hockey. But under the tutelage of Don Lever -- be sure to keep his name in mind for coaching vacancies next season -- D'Agostini learned how to get his hands dirty. The skill level remains, but now he's able to dress it up with a hard hat. When the Habs needed a mucker who was willing to pay the price, he was ready to answer the call.
Since joining the team on Nov. 29 -- not coincidentally, the last game before Latendresse began his exile -- D'Agostini has four goals in six games and his energetic play has revitalized linemates Saku Koivu and Andrei Kostitsyn. It's folly to think he can maintain this offensive pace, but 20 pounds heavier and two years smarter, he's equipped to do all the little things that turn a prospect into a pro. At this point, a job is his to lose.
The same can't be said for Latendresse, who seems ill prepared to handle his struggles. His confidence shot and his opportunities limited, he's likely to remain on the outside looking in.
Could Latendresse have benefited from a more cautious route to the pros? Watching D'Agostini make the argument nightly, it's hard to think otherwise.
• Much has been made of the resurgence of Patrick Marleau and the impact he's had on the Sharks' success, but San Jose's true MIP (Most Improved Player) might be Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The young defender's game has rebounded spectacularly from last season, when his diminished panic threshold led to too many rushed plays and too many mistakes. This season, perhaps buoyed by the veteran presence of Rob Blake and Dan Boyle and the absence of abrasive coach Ron Wilson, he's more relaxed with the puck. He's not just making smarter plays, he's shooting more often -- both of San Jose's goals Thursday against the Ducks were initiated by a Vlasic point blast.
Less than a third of the way into the season, he already has more assists than he had points all of last year, but more important, he's gained the complete trust of coach Todd MacLellan who has handed him a team-leading workload (24:27). As the Sharks cruise toward a President's Trophy, watch for a Vlasic-for-Norris campaign to slowly build steam.
• If Capitals fans are willing to look for the silver lining -- and what else can you do when you've had half the team simultaneously on Inured Reserve? -- they have to appreciate the opportunity to break some of the organization's wealth of young talent into the lineup. Already, the Caps have called up 10 different players from Hershey of the AHL. Some are bodies filling sweaters on a temp basis. Others? Well, in Wednesday night's 3-1 win over Boston, the team got its first look at a nasty piece of work who may be the answer to their longstanding need for a down-low presence: 6-4, 230-pound winger Oskar Osala.
The 2008 rookie of the year in the Finnish Elitserien, Osala is adjusting nicely to his first season in North America (16 goals and a plus-17 rating with the Bears), and plays a robust style that one day should make him very popular with the denizens of the Phone Booth. "He's a highly skilled player, but that's not his ticket [to the NHL]," an Eastern Conference scout told SI.com. "He's got the size and the [courage] to plant himself out front, and he's got soft hands. It's easy to see him becoming a big part of their power play."
Even though the Caps are starting to get healthy up front, Osala should get at least two more games to make an impression. Salary cap considerations will likely send him back to the minors after that, but they won't be able to keep this big hoss on the farm for long.
• The Russian entry for the upcoming World Junior Championship got a boost Thursday when the Columbus Blue Jackets agreed to release top prospects Nikita Filatov (sixth overall, 2008) and Maxim Mayorov (94th, 2007). The duo, currently skating for Syracuse of the AHL, were allowed to skip the team's training camp, which runs through the 17th in Novogorsk. Wasn't that long ago that anyone playing in North America was blacklisted from the Russian squad. Now they can't put together a competitive squad without them.