The Pittsburgh Penguins rebuilding mode and their subsequent very high picks in the NHL Entry Draft have been much talked about in the last few years. With the first, second and first overall choices in the last three years, respectively, they have added what look to be three franchise talents that can make up the core of the team for the foreseeable future.
Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Evgeni Malkin, will garner the majority of headlines in the next five to ten years, but a successful team needs more than just the electric forwards and athletic goaltenders. Great hockey teams are made by having a core of players who put their body on the line and give all their blood and sweat for their teammates.
The Penguins may just have found such a player in ‘Mad’ Max Talbot.
An afterthought on his draft day in 2002, the Montreal native was taken with the distant 234th pick, a cross your fingers choice in the draft which saw the Penguins choose Ryan Whitney fifth overall.
Disappointed but not deterred, Talbot went onto a fantastic season for his Hull Olympiques in 2002-03, piling up 42 goals and 104 points as the Olympiques claimed the Presidents Trophy and Talbot was named the playoff MVP. He backed it up the following season as the Olympiques defended their QMJHL title (this time based in Gatineau) with Talbot as captain and was the playoff MVP again, the first man to complete the feat since the great Guy Lafleur. He was also honored by Team Canada when he was given an ‘A’ for the World Junior Championships that year.
“Those years were unbelievable for me, to be a leader of a team that won twice consecutively,” said Talbot this week when he spoke to Hockey’s Future. “Sure we lost the final of the Memorial Cup two years in a row, but just having a chance to be part of that, and being MVP like you said is something I’m really proud of.”
Only the top echelon of player wins playoff MVP awards, let alone doing it twice. Talbot scored plenty of points in those two fantastic seasons, but it is not his offensive prowess that made waves this season. In his own words Talbot is a winner, someone with that natural swagger that surrounds a player used to success.
With a year of pro experience under his belt with Wilkes-Barre in the AHL during the lockout season, Talbot arrived in Pittsburgh for training camp with an eye on impressing the organization with his tireless work ethic, something he bases his game around and prides himself on.
“This is what my focus is every game, to play with emotion and passion and leave everything I have on the ice game in and game out. I’m really proud of that and I’m going to do that all my career long if I can.”
No one really expected Talbot to make the team this season, but an injury to Shane Endicott’s ankle in camp suddenly left the fourth line center spot vacant, and Talbot’s never say die attitude won him the call-up of a lifetime.
Talbot’s rise to the NHL completed a childhood dream, one that was shared by many of his peers growing up in the hockey crazed Montreal.
“Living in Montreal, it’s the national sport and everybody watches the Montreal Canadiens and plays hockey down there, so I started playing at the same time as everyone. I’ve never been the best player until maybe when I was about 15 or 16. I’m not the most skilled player I’m just a hard worker, and I made my way through. And now I’ve gained a little bit of skill but I’m still the same guy who dreamed about playing NHL when I was 5 or 6.”
The Penguins were one of the biggest disappointments in the league during October, and were the last team to earn themselves a win after losing their first nine games. Higher profile players such as Sergei Gonchar and Jocelyn Thibault struggled and received a lot of negative press, but behind the scenes the Penguins new high-intensity fourth liner and penalty killer impressed everyone.
Talbot’s style won the hearts of the fans, and he was widely regarded as one of the best players on the struggling team.
But beyond his on-ice personality lies the true story of ‘Mad’ Max Talbot, a self confessed crazy guy who brings smiles and laughter wherever he goes. The kind of guy that every successful locker room needs to stay motivated through the grind of a professional hockey season.
It was his former Wilkes-Barre teammate and now NHLer Colby Armstrong who best summed up Talbot’s nature when he spoke to Hockey’s Future last season.
“Maxime Talbot, man, this guy is off the wall. He’s pretty much out of control. He’s always got something going, I don’t know what is going on in his head sometimes, but I’m pretty sure he would say the same about me sometimes. I mean this guy is one of the wackiest guys I’ve ever played with and he’s a great guy to be around and fun to have in the room and a good guy to know.”
It’s fitting that it is Armstrong who comments on Talbot, as the two play similar hard-working games and are friends off the ice. They are both also destined to become two of the most valuable players in the future of the Penguins franchise, and Talbot is happy to hear of his friend’s comment.
“Yeah definitely (laughing), Colby is a crazy guy. If he says me I’m happy for that. I’m think I’m crazy on and off the ice a little bit. Probably off the ice my personality is a little bit different, it’s just fun to sit around with the guys. Colby’s right up there though, I think he could have made himself before me, it’s kind of a tie. It’s not bad to be recognized as a crazy guy I think.”
It seems appropriate then that one of the most indelible memories of his career, his first NHL goal, would not fit the norm. Almost as if the gods were playing a Talbot-esque prank, Philadelphia’s Antero Niittymaki was made to look a fool by the rookie on Oct. 14.
“It was 5-4 for Philadelphia in Philly and we had the draw on our side of the red line and had the order to change right after the draw. So I took the draw at the red line in the middle of the ice and I just threw it on net from the center ice and it went in. I guess the goalie wasn’t ready and surprised him and it was awesome. What a crazy way to score your first goal. Some people saw me and were telling me that only you could have done that kind of goal because you’re crazy and you can see my personality through that goal.”
Talbot’s goal sent the game into overtime, and earned the Penguins a point in the standings. And of course it was another case of Mad Max putting a smile on people’s faces.
Eventually Talbot became a victim of his own youth when he was demoted back to the Wilkes-Barre lineup despite his continuing good form. The Penguins knew that by demoting Talbot instead of one of his under-performing teammates would mean that no one would be exposed to waivers and Talbot would get a lot more ice time. He took it in stride.
“It’s fun being here because we’ve got such a great team and such great young players and our winning record is awesome. It’s great for me to have the chance to play more offensively and have a bigger role towards the team and to be a leader. It’s not just playing third and fourth line and killing penalties like I was doing in Pittsburgh. Here I’ve got the chance to play more and score some goals. That’s one of the reasons why (Coach Michel) Therrien sent me down because he wanted me to play more offensively and have a little bit more responsibility and I really enjoy it right now.”
The bigger role has paid dividends on the score sheet, with Talbot’s increased ice time and power play responsibilities reaping him 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists) from 29 games, up from the eight points (five goals, three assists) from 48 games he had in the NHL.
Playing with the Baby Penguins also gives Talbot another chance at some postseason play, with the team sitting atop their division and will be one of the favorites to take away the Calder Cup. In Talbot’s first experience in the playoffs as a pro last season, the Baby Penguins upset the Jason Spezza led Binghamton Senators in the first round before being knocked out by the eventual champions, the Philadelphia Phantoms. Talbot scored just the one assist and 22 penalty minutes in 11 playoff games last season, but is looking for a much bigger impact this season.
“That’s the part of the season that counts and it’s the best part of being a pro hockey player in the playoffs. We’ve got a team to win and that’s really exciting for all of the players. Everybody is really excited coming into the playoffs and it’s going to be great and we’ve got the players coming down from Pittsburgh so the team’s going to be ready to win the Calder Cup.”
For now, Talbot’s focus is on the Baby Penguins, but don’t mistake that for him being comfortable in the AHL. Talbot continues to dream of the NHL and his drive to return can only mean good things for the future of hockey in Pittsburgh.
“Once you get into the NHL you always want to stay there, always want to do your best and pursue your goals. Playing in the NHL was my ultimate goal and I did it this year and I want to get back there and have the chance to play again. So it’s definitely increased my dream and increased my passion to play in the NHL because I’ve tasted it and I want it again.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.