MONTREAL – When enforcer Georges Laraque played against Montreal last season, he noticed they were missing a big, tough player like himself.
Laraque filled that need Thursday when the brawny unrestricted free agent signed a US$4.50-million, three-year contract with the Canadiens.
The Montreal native said he had his way on the ice last season when his Pittsburgh Penguins played against Montreal, a team loaded with smaller, skilled forwards who tried to get by without an enforcer and rely on what coach Guy Carbonneau called “team toughness.”
“I elbowed (Canadiens defenceman) Francis Bouillon and no one did anything about it,” Laraque said on a conference call from his home in Edmonton. “When you’re a heavyweight and you play a team that doesn’t have one, you can run around.
“I was taking advantage of that, I can say that.”
The Canadiens, whose chances of signing plum free agent Mats Sundin appear to be dimming, also signed free agent goaltender Marc Denis from the Tampa Bay Lightning to a one-year contract with the intention of having him play for their AHL club in Hamilton.
They also shipped centre Mikhail Grabovski, who was itching for ice time he wouldn’t get in Montreal, to the Toronto Maple Leafs for 18-year-old defenceman Greg Pateryn, whom the Leafs’ drafted in the fifth round this year, and a second-round pick in 2010.
General manager Bob Gainey said he has not given up all hope of signing Sundin, who has asked for time to decide where, or if, he will play next season, and that he still needs to sign a seventh defenceman. Patrice Brisebois and Mathieu Dandenault, who played for Montreal last season, will be considered.
He said that assuming Sundin won’t come to Montreal, young centre Kyle Chipchura would start next season with the Canadiens on the understanding he would have to “play himself off the team” not to stick with the NHL club.
Gainey said it became clear as the season progressed that his team needed extra size and muscle, which the six-foot-three 243-pound Laraque should provide.
It was particularly noticeable in the playoffs when Montreal was upset by the bigger, more physical Philadelphia Flyers in the second round.
“It’s a style of player we haven’t had on our team,” said Gainey. “We had Aaron Downey a couple of years ago, but Georges really represents an elite player in that style – a robust, physical player who can participate in the game, play his minutes and bring some confidence to our players.
“We worked hard at having our players protect themselves and have confidence in the refereeing, but I think Georges will just tip the scales and give all our team a little more space.”
That is precisely what Laraque intends to bring.
“How much better can they be if they’re not intimidated?” he asked. “That’s why when you look at the free agents, all the tough guys were signed quickly.
“The teams all want them to get respect.”
Laraque was once quoted as saying he’d never play in Montreal, where the constant pressure from fans and media to win can sometimes go overboard, particularly for local players. But he told Montreal reporters during the Stanley Cup final he had changed his mind and would gladly play there.
The 31-year-old said he knows what he’s getting into and is looking forward to it. He said his whole family, many of whom live in Montreal, are as excited as he is about the move.
He joined a Montreal team that finished first in the NHL Eastern Conference last season and expects to be better as young players like brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec and Guillaume Latendresse mature.
Laraque was drafted 31st overall by Edmonton in 1995 and signed as a free agent with Phoenix in 2006. The Coyotes traded him to Pittsburgh the following year.
He has 52 goals, 96 assists and 1,037 penalty minutes in 634 career games. Last season, he had four goals and nine assists in 71 games and played in 15 of Pittsburgh’s 20 playoff games.
Some felt Grabovski would be moved when he briefly left the team during a road trip last winter to consult with his agent after being made a healthy scratch for a game in Phoenix, but Gainey said that was just a youthful mistake that was pardoned.
He said the small, speedy centre wanted quality ice time and a chance to play on the power play, but couldn’t bump top two centres Saku Koivu and Plekanec. So the 2004 draft pick from Belarus was shipped to a rebuilding Toronto team.
“He isn’t 18 or 19, he’s 24,” said Gainey. “He has options to play in Europe.
“He wants to play, to get on and see how good he is, and we really couldn’t tell him he’d have that chance here.”
Gainey said Denis would have a chance to push young goalies Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak for an NHL job, but the plan is to have him start the season in Hamilton to get extra playing time and rebuild his confidence.
The 1995 first-round draft pick is a 10-year NHL veteran with Colorado, Columbus and Tampa Bay, but never established himself as an elite goalie and finished last season in the AHL. The Canadiens want an experienced goalie in Hamilton to complement prospect Cedrick Desjardins.
Gainey still needs to sign restricted free agents Halak, Ryan O’Byrne and Josh Gorges, but said he will leave room to manoeuvre under the salary cap in case an enticing free agent is available.
And for now, he has no interest in Jaromir Jagr and wants a break from discussing Sundin.
“What Mats said (Wednesday) was, ‘I need some space. Thank you, but I’m not ready,’ so why don’t we all just exhale and we’ll see what happens in two or three weeks?” Gainey said. “Speculation and on-going chit-chat will only fill up talk shows. It won’t do us much good.”