BROSSARD, Que. – When Bob Gainey finished his free-agent shopping on Canada Day, a common criticism of the Montreal Canadiens GM’s moves was that a small team got even smaller.
There’s still plenty of beef with hulking winger Guillaume Latendresse, enforcer Georges Laraque and towering defencemen Hal Gill, however. And Latendresse likes what he sees in camp.
“I was impressed with the players we got,” Latendresse said Saturday as the Habs went through physicals a day before the first on-ice session of training camp.
“I can’t wait to see the fans’ reaction to those players, they’re going to love the way these new guys play. They’re smaller guys, but they have speed, they like to move the puck, they like to work hard. It’s going to be different, but the fans will enjoy it.”
With new acquisitions Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, plus incumbents Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn, five of the Canadiens’ projected top six forwards are six feet or under.
New head coach Jacques Martin has already said he would like to have a player with size fill the remaining spot on one of the top two lines, and the six-foot-two, 228-pound Latendresse would certainly fit the bill.
After three years of paying his dues in a supporting role, Latendresse is ready to seize that opportunity this season.
“If you look at the top six forwards they’re all smaller players, so that could help a guy with my size,” the 22-year-old said. “But it’s up to me to have a strong camp and grab that spot.”
The natural assumption is that Gomez and Gionta will play together considering they put up career years as linemates in New Jersey, and Martin sees a spot for big winger on the left side to compensate for their lack of size.
Latendresse could be competing for that spot with second-year forward Max Pacioretty, who at six foot two and 196 pounds also possesses a tantalizing combination of size and skill while holding an edge in the speed department over Latendresse.
Latendresse has also developed some nice chemistry with fellow Quebecer Maxim Lapierre in an energy line role, and he admits that could potentially hurt his chances for a top-six spot with the club. Newcomer Travis Moen would seemingly be a good fit to replace the departed Tom Kostopoulos on that line.
In addition to Latendresse, the Habs should be able to add some muscle to the lineup with a healthier, lighter version of Laraque, who reported Saturday that the back issues that limited him to 33 games last year were a thing of the past.
A summer of daily yoga sessions and a switch to a vegan diet helped him shed 20 pounds to get down to 245, which he feels will help his back remain pain-free throughout the season.
“My role for the last 12 years has always been the same, to be a physical player and do everything I can to make sure my team is respected,” Laraque said. “Being healthy and being able to play every game will have a big impact on the team because it will give our guys more room every game, not just the games where I’m healthy.”
On defence, the departure of Mike Komisarek to the Toronto Maple Leafs was also decried in Montreal as the Canadiens blue-line lost its most physically intimidating presence.
While returning defenceman Josh Gorges admits Komisarek was a big loss, he doesn’t agree that it has made the Habs smaller.
“He was physical, he laid big hits and he got guys going,” Gorges said. “But I don’t think we got smaller. Look at Hal Gill, I don’t think he’s smaller.”
Indeed, Gill more than makes up for Komisarek’s departed size with his six-foot-seven, 250-pound frame, and the free agent acquisition has every intention of using that to his advantage.
“I like to think that my role is to be big in front of the net and to give Carey (Price) a view of the puck, and if he can’t see it I have to block it for him,” Gill said. “But I think we’re going to have to be strong defensively as a team, and if you look at the smaller guys we have at forward, having played against them they were all responsible defensively.”
In addition to his size, Gill’s experience winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year and reaching the final the year before is something he intends to share with some of his younger teammates this season.
Gill’s 44 games of playoff experience the last two years is one fewer playoff game the Canadiens have played this entire decade.
“I’ll try and be strong and steady on the ice and in the locker-room,” Gill said. “I’ve been around a little bit and seen some things, so hopefully I can help out some of the younger guys who haven’t been there yet.”