Walking the Line
By Dave Pollard, Guelphstorm.com exclusive
Every once in a while, Michael Latta will cross the line.
You know the one, the imaginary boundary that separates what is perceived as acceptable on the ice and what is not.
With the emotion-driven, heart-on-his-sleeve style of hockey Latta plays for the Storm, it’s inevitable that transgressions will occasionally take place.
Heck, Latta is the first to admit he walks a fine line every time he jumps over the boards. But he’s not about to apologize for playing a rambunctious style some might find annoying, offensive even.
“It’s something I’ll never change as long as I play hockey, whether coaches like it or not, ” Latta said. “It’s not easy to walk that line. People
probably don’t understand how hard it is. It’s a challenge every game. Sometimes Brooksy (head coach and general manager Jason Brooks) wants more
edge, sometimes it’s less edge. It’s something I like that I have, something valuable I have.”
And it’s something Latta can’t change, not if he wants to continue having success. Playing with grit, passion and sometimes outright anger is what got the
19-year-old forward from St. Clements drafted into the OHL in the first place. It’s one of the traits the Storm was looking for when Brooks acquired
him in a trade from the Ottawa 67’s midway through the 2008-09 season. And, without question, it’s one of the main reasons the Nashville Predators
used a third-round pick on Latta and then signed him last April, a year earlier than they needed.
“He has that tangible of doing the erratic,” Brooks said. “Michael walks that fine line. He’s a gamer, night in and night out. He’s team motivated,
he really is. He plays with his heart, he plays with emotion and sometimes that emotion gets the better of him. I’d rather he care than not. The beauty of him is he cares and competes. He’s still learning, he’s going to get better with time.”
There is one attribute Brooks would like Latta to lose, though his unselfishness in the offensive zone. Latta oftentimes tries to set up his linemates, passing up his own shot to make a pretty pass. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Those times it doesn’t generally lead to turnovers, which can in turn lead to scoring chances for the other team.
“The turnovers are frustrating at times,” Brooks said. “We’re trying to find a balance with him. That’s a process. If you’re a guy who doesn’t have the
skill set that he does, you tend to make the simple play. That’s because you’re not confident in your abilities. Mike is confident in his abilities.
But for every turnover he makes, he makes a great play. The other thing that’s frustrating is he passes up shots. Sometimes, in his
mind, the best play isn’t the right play. That’s the unselfish side of Michael. He gets more satisfaction out of his teammates scoring than he
does. Is that a negative? It can be. For him to move to the next level, he’s going to have to shoot the puck.”
Despite not pulling the trigger enough, Latta is on pace to set career highs in goals and penalty minutes. He’s coming off a 2009-10 campaign that saw him rack up 33 goals and 73 points, both the best numbers of his career. And yet for some, Latta has underachieved. Picked sixth overall by the 67’s in 2007, expectations have always been high for the 6-foot, 213-pounder and it’s taken some time for him to live up to them.
“I don’t think expectations of him scoring shouldn’t be there,” Brooks said. “But pure offensive guys aren’t that type of player. They don’t engage physically. Those 90-point guys are guys who (play) pretty. Lats has the skills of a 100-point guy but plays more like a 60-80 point, 150 (penalty minute) guy.
Because he went sixth overall, everybody assumes he’s going to produce big numbers. And I think he’s capable of more.”
After a slow start last season, Latta picked up his offensive production once the calendar changed. In his last 32 games, he had 24 goals and 47 points.
With 14 goals and 23 points in the Storm’s first 20 games, he’s on pace for more than 40 goals. Oddly, his assist totals are down.
“I think so far I’ve been pretty consistent,” Latta said. “Whether it’s me being selfish or not, I like to make that extra pass. But I definitely see where Brooksy is coming from. It’s something I’m going to have to work on.”
It would seem that signing with Nashville has taken the pressure off Latta this season. But that’s not necessarily the case. With a contract tucked in his pocket, he’s set his sights on achieving other goals. One of those is earning a spot in Team Canada’s tryout for the World Junior Championship in Buffalo.
“It’s definitely nice to have been drafted and signed but there’s different pressure now,” Latta said. “I’ve watched (the WJC) every Christmas since I was six years old. I think I could be a good third or fourth line guy. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I don’t think they have any returning forwards. When you get a chance like that, you have to grab it.”
Until then, Latta is focused on getting the Storm pointed in the right direction. Considered a contender coming into the season, the team has struggled to find consistency despite solid performances by the top three offensive players — Latta, Peter Holland and Taylor Beck.
“It’s always tough when you’re expected to be the team and you’re not,” Latta said. “It’s frustrating. As a leader it’s a lot of pressure … I know we should be beating teams. Sometimes we’re not willing to do what it takes to win. Some guys are going to have to figure that out or get off the team.”