Watching Maxime Talbot brings to mind a beloved 1980s lo-fi album. Something from Dead Kennedys, say. Sure, most of the songs aren't exactly works of art, but there's a charm that's makes them more than the sum of their parts. Grimy and rough around the edges, but unabashedly daring.
End to end, side to side, board to board, Talbot flying, full force, into the opposition. His body, and occasionally theirs, crashing to the ice before he gets back up and begins going end to end, side to side, board to board, rinsed and repeated.
Full force, full-bodied and full-time: these words define Maxime Talbot, an eighth-round draft pick who struck gold for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Championships are not won by a player like Talbot, but they are lost by not having a Talbot. And if Talbot isn't on his game this season, the Penguins could struggle. Although Talbot played well in the 2010 playoffs, his regular season performance fell well below that level. Talbot finished the year with seven points in 45 games during a season in which he failed to build on a very strong playoff performance in 2009.
To be fair to Talbot, his season was derailed by injuries, typical of his career and his playing style, and the 5-foot-11 Penguins' center was never quite able to put it all together until the playoffs. This can't happen in 2010-11, a season in which Talbot will take on a larger role.
There are two obvious scenarios for Talbot this season:
1) Talbot moves to the second line to play on Evgeni Malkin's wing.
This option is attractive due to the chemistry Malkin and Talbot displayed in limited work together, especially during the playoffs. However, the second option...
2) Talbot centers the third line after Jordan Staal moves up to the second.
... is better than the first. With the way the Penguins rotate lines and share responsibilities, Talbot would still have a vital role.
It looks more and more likely that the Penguins won't attract any serious forward talent to replace Ruslan Fedotenko and Bill Guerin, so Talbot appears to be a serious option for a role on the top two lines (along with Matt Cooke). That, though, would put Staal on the third line. Despite his deficiencies, Staal is the third best forward on the team, possesses serious physical tools and would allow Malkin an opportunity to shift over to the wing.
While Malkin has had mixed results in limited action on the wing, giving Malkin an extended audition playing out wide would give him more time to acclimate to the position. Also, the defensively superior Staal could allow Malkin to maraud up the wings and cause havoc on the forecheck.
It's about time, then, Talbot had a serious audition as an anchor for the third line. One could argue that Talbot is the best fourth line center in the NHL. He deserves a chance to prove himself on the third line. Though he has his weaknesses (he's prone to mental lapses in the defensive zone and he's not physically imposing enough), his aforementioned intangibles make up for them.
Talbot is also entering the final year of a two year, $2.1 million extension signed in December '08, taking him into the unrestricted free agent market at the close of this season. If Pittsburgh isn't the place for Talbot to make that leap to a featured role on a second or third line, somewhere else is. We know this and, assuredly, General Manager Ray Shero knows this.
So, it's reasonable to expect that, whatever the role is, Talbot will get opportunities to show his worth to the squad this season. If he does, Shero, who showed considerable faith in giving Talbot a nice raise until the end of his restricted free agency years, will try his utmost to secure Talbot's future in Pittsburgh. Or, if his performance doesn't match expectations, as sacrilegious as it may seem in Pittsburgh, Talbot could be tempting bait near the trade deadline.
In the end, the decisions on trades and line creation aren't about putting a single player in position to succeed, but putting the entire team in a position to succeed. The impetus is now on Talbot to make his employers' decisions for them, one way or the other.