A good underdog story has our hero making the most of circumstance and shining bright at the key moment. To me, for the Penguins, that’s Max Talbot every bit of the way. Let’s look at the pinnings of a good underdog story and see how it applies.
Max Talbot was selected in the eighth round of the 2002 NHL draft. There isn’t even an eighth round of the draft any longer. That already sets Talbot up for a long-shot of a professional hockey career. But it was a successful turn in the Quebec league, that eventually put him on the map (quite literally) with two number one overall picks, who ironically would all go on to be teammates and Stanley Cup champions together one day. That day would feel like a forever-to-go back in the fall of 2003, though.
A few familiar faces gracing the 2003-04 @QMJHL media guide cover... #LetsGoPens pic.twitter.com/J9G8GlDsSy— Penguins History (@penguinshistory) May 16, 2020
Unlike those two first overall picks on the cover, Talbot had to scrape and claw his way to the top. (Also, at age 20 his legendary beard is already better than most grown men!)
If Max Talbot was a few years older, he likely would have been a cult figure in the Penguins’ “X-Generation”; a group of young hungry (but often talent-deficient players) that tried hard, lost a lot of games. Then he would have been flushed out after the 2004-05 lockout, like so many players in that era were. After all, by the time the Pens were contenders again for the the 2007-08 season only Fleury, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi were left from the pre-lockout days. So many others from the X-Generation days (Aleksey Morozov, Rico Fata, Tomas Surovy, Kris Beech, Milan Kraft, Michal Rozsival, Matt Bradley, Guillaume Lefebvre and Ramzi Abid) were gone, for one reason or another.
If Talbot was a few years younger, he wouldn’t have been in position to be a key player in the 2008 and 2009 playoff runs. If Talbot was a few years older, he might have had a career path like Guillaume Lefebvre.
That’s a variable that no one can control, but to have a good underdog, the unlikely hero has to have just the right timing. Things outside of their control have to put them on the scene at just the right moment. That certainly applies for Talbot.
The struggle is real
Looking back, it might seem a fait accompli that the Penguins would just naturally assume their place as the most winning team of the last 15 seasons. They had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, so everything else is easy, right? Well, no, not at all. It takes more than two players — even elite players — to be a great NHL team (shoutout Connor and Leon, keep your heads up). The Pens’ organization had plenty of growing pains to get up to speed and develop a winning organization.
Enter the prickly Michel Therrien, whose job from 2006-09 was to shape the team up, make them play hard and install a defensive structure for a young team. It wasn’t without growing pains.
He called his team soft, pathetic, the worst defensive team in the league — among other things. Therrien also only singled out just one player as even remotely caring in Maxime Talbot, but then of course dismissively noted he was small and couldn’t do anything even if he tried. Talbot would say later that would make him a bit insecure in the lockerroom since the boys knew he was something of a teacher’s pet and there was a little bit of that weird mix of jealously and grilling (based in the truth) that Talbot was the most honest player on the ice.
And, indeed he was. Talbot’s game was maniacally based in speed. Getting to loose pucks even though he might be shrugged aside in the ensuing battle by a bigger, stronger opponent. The relentlessness and dogged desire to keep going would be Talbot’s key to success. He couldn’t always out-muscle other players, but he sure as hell could out-work and out-skate them. So that’s what he did, carving out a niche in the NHL mainly with his speed, defensive work and penalty killing.
A reason to cheer
So you’ve got this under-sized player who has made it, despite being a late draft pick. That’s all well and good but an underdog has to capture the imagination and hearts of the world at large with their attitude and charm. Max Talbot would worm his way into the hearts and minds of Pens’ fans not just during the game, but also when the game went to TV timeouts.
There, Talbot starred in several local TV commercials over the years that were often run (like, once a period) on the channel then known as FSN Pittsburgh (now known as AT&T Sportsnet).
And...the moment of truth
By June 2009 it had only been seven years since almost no one was paying attention to the 8th round of the 2002 draft when the Pens selected Max Talbot. The eyes of the hockey world couldn’t look away from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, though.
Here, in the coup de grâce, the underdog transformed into a franchise icon that will go down in history by scoring the Pens’ only two goals in Game 7 to beat the Detroit Red Wings.
Then...what comes next after being on top?
The lightning in a bottle that Talbot found slowly faded away from that moment. It’s impossible to top what he did that night in Detroit. From there, shoulder injuries and other ailments seemed to wear Talbot down.
Approaching 30 years old, he left Pittsburgh in the summer 2011 as a free agent, signing with the rival Flyers who offered an aging fourth liner way too much money on a five year contract (what a bad idea!) Predictably, that contract didn’t go well — though Talbot did score a career-high 19 goals and 34 points his first season in Philadelphia — but he was traded in 2013 to Colorado and again in 2015 to Boston, where his North American career ended with a whimper being buried in the AHL as his deal ran out.
Still, the nature of Talbot provided a wonderful underdog situation that followed almost a Hollywood scoop of a player coming virtually out of no where to become a key figure on and off the ice and eventually boost his team up to championship caliber.