MONTREAL – With all the new faces brought in and all the money spent in doing so, Bob Gainey and the Montreal Canadiens no longer had time to wait for a player like Guillaume Latendresse to develop.
That was one of the reasons Gainey shipped the 22-year old local product to the Minnesota Wild on Monday in exchange for disappointing former first-round draft pick Benoit Pouliot.
“We’ve been happy often with the play of Guillaume over the last couple of years, but we find ourselves in a position where the team has changed drastically,” Gainey said after Canadiens practice Tuesday. “We’ve shifted out of a plan where we showed patience and waited for a group of young players that had been drafted. We’ve moved into a time where we need production from what could be considered mature players.”
Latendresse, who grew up in nearby Ste-Catherine, made the team straight out of junior when he was 19 and he was already in his fourth season with the Canadiens.
Expectations from fans and media alike were through the roof because of Latendresse’s local roots, and many believe that may have led to his inability to break through as a consistent top-six forward in Montreal.
Latendresse had two goals and one assist in 23 games this season and had settled into a fourth line role of late, rarely reaching the 10-minute mark in ice time.
Latendresse told reporters that he felt he never got an extended look in a scoring role with the Canadiens, and that every time he was pencilled into one of the top two lines he felt he was one or two mistakes away from being demoted again.
He also said it was clear to him as early as training camp that he was not a favourite of Habs head coach Jacques Martin.
“He’s a good person, a young player who needs to continue improving his work ethic, his commitment to his career,” Martin said. “But many young players need to go through that process.”
Gainey said he is aware of the backlash that may result from trading away a fan favourite, but he says there is another French-Canadian coming to the team in Pouliot and he hopes he will be given more space to continue his development without the same burdens Latendresse had.
“More than simply being a Quebecer, (Latendresse) comes from Montreal, he lives here, he played minor hockey here,” Gainey said. “I know that’s very important for the fans and for young players to see someone like him and think that he played Saturday mornings in the same rinks I do and now he plays for the Canadiens.
“But we have a French-Canadian player coming back who can answer your questions, and I hope you give him a chance to establish himself here.”
Pouliot, 23, is a native of Alfred, Ont., a town near the Quebec border that is very close to Martin’s hometown of St-Isidore, Ont.
Drafted fourth overall in 2005, Pouliot was spinning his wheels with Minnesota, unable to carve himself a spot on the roster and spending most of the last three years in the AHL. In 65 NHL games spread over four seasons, Pouliot has nine goals and nine assists. Over the same four-year span, Latendresse has played 232 NHL games and has 48 goals and 37 assists.
One of the major criticisms of the Canadiens’ handling of Latendresse was that they brought him to the NHL too soon without allowing him to earn his spot in the AHL like most other prospects.
Gainey said Tuesday that this trade is proof there is no clear-cut development path that applies to everybody.
“I think we can see it right here. One went straight to the NHL, the other spent some time playing in the AHL, and they’re in the exact same situation,” he said. “They’re in a situation where they could still have very good careers, but at the same time they’re at a point where their careers could be at risk as well.”
Pouliot arrives with an injured wrist, but Gainey said he could be ready to play by this weekend.
His name gets added to a long Canadiens injured list that now also features centre Scott Gomez and defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, neither of whom practised Tuesday with lower body injuries. Gomez and Spacek were not to play Tuesday against Columbus and they will not play Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Montreal called up Sergei Kostitsyn to take Latendresse’s spot on the roster and he was to make his season debut Tuesday night, while J.T. Wyman was also called up to take the spot of suspended Habs enforcer Georges Laraque and was expected to make his NHL debut.
Laraque was suspended five games for a knee-on-knee hit with Niklas Kronwall on Saturday night, leaving the Detroit defenceman out for up to eight weeks with a sprained knee.
After the game, Laraque said he felt he did nothing wrong and that the hit was accidental, but Tuesday he admitted after seeing the replay that the hit deserved a suspension.
“I’ve been in the league for 13 years and it’s not something that I do, I’m not a dirty player and I’m deeply sorry I did that,” he said. “I hope Niklas recovers.”
But he added that he feels his reputation as a fighter may have played into the length of the suspension.
“The suspension is steep, even though I deserve one,” Laraque said. “But the only question that I really wonder about is if he had done that to me, would he have been suspended?”