In Game 4 of the ECHL Kelly Cup finals, Guillaume Desbiens was ejected at 16:09 of the third period for a fight that erupted after he drove the net into the goaltender. But the winger couldn’t start taking off his gear just yet. He still had one more task – throwing a t-shirt to the crowd during his ovation as one of the three stars of the game, having scored two goals. He spent the last four minutes of the game in the tunnel, t-shirt missile ready in hand, before lauching it almost to the top of the lower bowl. Such is the busy life of a budding power forward.
A fourth round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2003, Desbiens turned pro this season out of the QMJHL and thrived with the team’s affiliate Gwinnett Gladiators.
The 21-year-old finished tied for ninth in the ECHL amongst rookies with 60 points in 65 games, was tied for first in goals among rookies with 33, and was third in penalty minutes with 187. On the Gladiators, he finished fifth in scoring and led the team in goals, six of them game-winners. In the playoffs, he finished second on the team in scoring with 10 goals and six assists in 17 games.
“I scored more than I thought I would,” he admitted during the finals. “I mean, I had a good season last year, but I could have had more points. This year was just a following of last season. I was surprised that everything went that well. (Fellow French-Canadian) Pascal (Pelletier) helped me a lot when I came here and coach (Jeff Pyle) gave me a lot of ice time. The first couple games it was hard, but after that I’ve had a lot of ice time and it was a lot better.”
At the very beginning it was difficult for him because he was only assigned to the team on the day of the first game, after playing in one game with Chicago. He needed some time to learn the systems, as well as adjust to a new lifestyle.
In his last season with Rouyn-Noranda, the Alma, Quebec native had 27 goals and 16 assists in 56 games, along with 206 penalty minutes. He was able to pinpoint several reasons why he thought he did better with Gwinnett.
“Last year I had a lot of points the second part of the season, but I got suspended way too quick in games so I was on my way but it stopped me. This year I didn’t get suspended. I think it was just a following of the end of last season. I kind of learned how to play my style. Fighting a little less, but I think at the right time. My coach last year helped me a lot, told me to stay in front of the net and that’s where I made most of my points this year.”
Desbiens did get suspended for one game, however, just the fourth of the year in early November for charging. But he seemed to learn his lesson, stayed in the lineup and kept his good play going all season, right into the playoffs.
“I feel I’m playing the same way,” he said after Game 3 of the finals. “I’m just trying to be a little more disciplined, but the last two games I was not proud of myself about some dumb penalties that I took, but before that I was really disciplined – had only eight minutes. Now I have a lot more, but I have to get back on the right way and be more disciplined. Hockey-wise I’m trying to do the same thing as during the season. I’m playing good, but there’s still stuff I could do better.”
After his game misconduct in Game 4, he finished with 38 penalty minutes in the playoffs, third on the team.
Desbiens’ usual linemates were second-year pros Brad Schell (ATL) and Jeff Campbell, who was named the league MVP this year. The trio was together since December, when one of them wasn’t called up to the AHL.
“They were incredible for me,” Desbiens said of Schell and Campbell. “Everything I’ve done I couldn’t have done without them.
“Scheller’s a great passer and he has a lot of speed. Soupy is good all-around, he’s good down low, can handle the puck a lot, has a great shot, can pass the puck well. I’m just trying to get them more space, be the first in the corner, hit the guy and then they get the puck and do what they have to do. I just stand in front of the net and take the rebound or they have more space because I’m there.”
Desbiens was recalled to the AHL Chicago Wolves Feb 9-20, playing two games. He went scoreless and had seven PIMs.
“I thought it went well, but with the situation in Chicago trying to make the playoffs, I didn’t have a lot of ice time. The first game I had a lot, then I had one turnover and I think John (Anderson) didn’t like that so I didn’t play after that. Even the second game I played, I thought I had a good fight and then he just sat me down. I didn’t play at all after that. I understood the situation, they’re trying to make the playoffs. Maybe I was not the player they were looking for, so I was glad to be coming back here, we’re having a great season. It was easier for me to learn the professional way here because we had a great team and the setup was easier than in Chicago. Next year is going to be a lot better.”
Staying relatively injury-free is always key in having a good season. Desbiens stayed off the IR this year, but did suffer tendonitis in his shoulder in January.
“When I got called up to Chicago it started hurting a little bit. I could do everything, it wasn’t holding me back, but I’m taking shots every day so the shoulder [wasn’t healing]. I had to have a cortisone shot and it helped me a lot. I was off the ice for a week and after that it was better. It still hurts a little bit, but it’s going to hurt until the season ends.”
Desbiens’ hit statistics, if the league kept them, would be through the roof. He’s one who genuinely loves to play the body. Pyle, while extremely pleased with his play all year, would like him to be just a bit more selective in the timing of his hits, however.
“He has a habit of running down to get a hit and the puck will come up to his point man. Just the little things of knowing when to go.”
Desbiens scored most of his goals one of two ways, by battling hard for a spot in the slot on the power play or by beating a defender wide one-on-one and cutting to the net.
Coach Pyle commented that Desbiens, at 6’2, 210, was the only player in the league he knew who could beat someone wide on his forehand. His good strength allows him to drop his shoulder and shield the puck. He’s so hard to stop that he either scores or draws a penalty virtually every time he drives the net.
Desbiens wasn’t shy about giving away the secret to it either. Even if everyone knows what he’s doing, he would still be tough to stop.
“Pretty much first you have to have a good pass from whoever you’re with,” he noted with a smile. “Beyond that, explode when you get the puck so the defenseman cannot pivot and catch you. When you crash the net, you have to put your body in front of him and use your weight to get there.”
Sounds pretty simple, but carrying it out requires an enormous amount of preparation.
The Gladiators each receive a gym membership, and are on their own to visit the gym during the season. Desbiens described his approach to in-season training.
“During the season it’s hard because you’re playing a lot. You don’t want to get tired too much. Usually I go once or twice a week, just to make sure you don’t lose the weight you gained in the summer. I do a lot of bike though, after games, after practice. I think that’s the most important thing, you want to keep up your shape. Get the acid out of your muscles.”
Two summers ago, Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting Dan Marr told him to work on his core muscles, those that help with balance. He’s done that, and the results are clear in the number of goals he scored while driving the net or getting pounded in the slot.
“Core work like abs, that’s what helped me a lot. When I go to the net, guys try to push me around and to not fall is pretty hard, but you have to get the core work.”
Powering to the net will be tougher to do as he moves up, both because the players he faces will be strong and faster. Desbiens’ skating has improved during his time with the organization, but while his balance is very good, his explosion and speed are not yet assets.
“I’m not an NHL skater yet,” he recognized. “I can skate fast but I’m never going to be the fastest guy on the ice. I know I have to work on being quick and improving my foot skills. I mean, I’ve improved a lot in the last couple of seasons, but I still have a lot of work to do.”
At the time of his drafting, his skating was probably the worst part of his game.
“Terrible,” he said shaking his head and laughing. “I admit it.”
Denying that fact wouldn’t have worked anyway, as there is indeed video evidence of him before the improvement.
“Two summers ago my agent had a camp and he was like ‘we’re going to record that, and you’re going to look at it in five years and say ‘whoa.’ You’re going to be impressed with the way you’ve changed it,’” Desbiens recalled.
That 2003 camp featured Eric Bédard, a Team Canada short track speed skater, as the instructor.
“Everybody who was at the camp, he changed the way they skate and everybody improved. He changed the way I was striding,” Desbiens said. “Now I just have to get stronger in my legs and get faster with my feet.”
This summer, Desbiens won’t change much in his training routine, which has been working pretty well for him.
“For the last two summers I was doing pretty much the same, which was very good. This summer I’m going to try to – not more cardio – but be better at it. A lot of foot drills, the ladder. Drills I learned here (at the Thrashers training facility) with Ray Bear. Plyos, Olympic weight-lifting. Get more explosion, stuff like that.”
It’s a delicate balance for hockey players to have the strength, agility and speed necessary to play at their peak. Too heavy with additional muscle and they lose speed and agility. Too light and they are knocked off the puck too easily.
During the summer, Desbiens skates only once a week so as not to lose the weight he has gained over the summer. Two weeks before NHL training camp he attends a camp sponsored by his agent Phil Lecavalier which is twice on the ice a day.
At Thrashers 2005 training camp, Desbiens preformed pretty well at the off-ice tests. He continued to have trouble with one of Coach Hartley’s favorites, however, a grueling skate that is to be accomplished in 45 seconds.
“I struggled at the mountain,” Desbiens recalled. “It’s a tough one.”
Overall though, “[The camp] went good. I mean, I was used to it, it was my second one. I knew what was going on. My first one (in 2003) I was way too anxious. On the ice I was worried about mistakes, which is not good, you have to be confident.
“It’s impressing, you get in the room and (Ilya) Kovalchuk’s there and you’re like ‘wow’. I’m 18 years old and all I’ve dreamed about is right beside me.”
Desbiens recalled one of his first encounters with Kovalchuk. With only two right wings, he had to play a couple of shifts with the superstar in an intra-squad game.
“He’s so fast,” Desbiens described. “My first camp I think it was Kamil Piros that got injured and they put me on [Kovalchuk’s] line. I was just trying to keep up and I struggled with that.
“This year, he was still fast but I’m a little better.”
Does he think he could keep up now? “Oh yeah, definitely,” he said. “It’s not that I wasn’t good enough to do it, it’s just that I was impressed. You’re playing on the same ice as Kovalchuk.”
Captain Scott Mellanby served as an icon for the rookie at camp as well. “It’s just impressing to see how he’s still playing and still doing good.”
Next fall Desbiens plans to much more than a spectator at camp.
“This year I was more confident, but I don’t think I was as confident as I should be. Next year I think it’s going to be a lot better because I know what I need to do. I had a professional season this year so I know what I need to do to impress them.
“Now you play pro, you‘re doing the same job as they do, in the sun more, you’re not as impressed as your first camp.
“Not that they are not impressing anymore,” he added, “but I know the situation a lot better.”
Thrashers prospects playing for Gwinnett are fortunate to be able to see the end goal in action, with Philips Arena just a 45-minute drive away. Despite his own 72-game schedule, Desbiens found the time to attend several Thrashers games.
“I went to I think eight or nine games. Most of the games were after Christmas when they were chasing for a playoff spot. Actually, every game that I went to they won, so I’m an undefeated fan when I go there,” he said, laughing.
As to what he pays attention to at the games, he said “I like Hossa and Kovalchuk, like that, but I’m never going to be a player like them, so I watch the third line, Jim Slater, the guys trying to create some offense by hitting, crashing the net. It’s more trying to figure out what I need to do to get up there, what I still need to improve on.”
While Desbiens doesn’t have the speed and puck skills of Hossa, he has similar strength in comparison to the defense, which makes his drives to the net look very much like those of Hossa.
Despite taking advantage of the learning environment, Desbiens admitted getting caught up in Thrashers playoff fever too.
“When I go there I’m more of a fan, I’m kind of excited. It’s a good crowd there and everybody gets involved in it. I got involved a lot too, I was actually on my feet and screaming for them – I kind of surprised myself because usually I just sit down at games and just watch. But it was exciting trying to catch a playoff spot.”
Desbiens’ English was already excellent when he arrived this season, but seemed to improve further over the course of the year. ‘Dezy’ (his preferred spelling) still searches for some seldom-used words sometimes, on this day calling a speed skater a “fast skater” and temporarily forgetting the word “cortisone.”
Very easy going and humble, he’s also just a little bit unique, not just because he’s the only French-Canadian on the team.
“He’s a different bird just like I am, but that’s what makes us click together,” roommate Jon Awe said.
Pyle was more philosophic about Desbiens marching to the beat of a different drummer.
“Yeah, but it’s a good type of leadership with that drum,” he said. “It’s not a follower type drum or it’s not a negative thing – he’s a very positive person. He’s a very mature young man I think. I think it’s confidence. He’s not afraid to be him and that’s a good thing. You can’t be afraid to be a little goofy at times.
“To me, he’s a young kid who knows where he’s at, and he’s having a blast. He knows there’s something at the end of that rainbow for him and he’s going to work for it.”
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