Hometown Hab fueled by pride

DAVID W. UNKLE -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 3:48 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA--It has been 14 seasons (and counting) since the Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup.

Ask a Habs fan how long it's been since they've had a local product on the roster, and most Quebecers will (arguably) have to go back a few decades to the era of Guy Lafleur and Guy Carbonneau.

That all changed when the Canadiens signed 19-year-old, power forward, Guillaume Latendresse to a three-year, entry-level contract prior to the start of the 2006-07 NHL season.

With the Canadiens opening this season with three road games, Latendresse was able to cut his NHL teeth without the added stress of the Bell Centre faithful.

"I think in my first two (NHL) games, I was a bit nervous," said Latendresse, who seemed to be relaxed, eating a cheese steak following a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers last Wednesday.

That all changed on last Saturday for Latendresse, playing in front of a sold-out audience at the Bell Centre in the Habs' home-opener.

As predicted, Latendresse drew the loudest reception of the night, surpassing fan-favorite, and team captain Saku Koivu.

In 2003, Latendresse was the second-overall selection by the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Entry draft, behind phenom Sidney Crosby, selected at the top spot by Rimouski Oceanic.

"We were always in competition to be the top selection in the (QMJHL Entry) Draft," said Latendresse.

"When I looked at Sidney, and I looked at my play, Sidney was always the better player," acknowledged Latendresse, adding that, "At no point were we equal, so being drafted (immediately) behind him was quite an honour."

Soon, Crosby was lighting up the QMJHL with 120 goals and 303 points in his first two seasons. Latendresse put up respectable numbers, potting 53 goals and 127 points with the Voltigeurs during the same time period.

But their games were different.

Crosby used finesse, compared to his Latendresse, who used size and a physical style of play to earn his points. But while scouts liked Latendresse's size and his tools, injuries and a few extra pounds caused the one-time, projected first-round pick to fall in value.

So when Latendresse was still on the draft board, the Canadiens, jumped at the opportunity to select the 6-2, 230-pound forward in the second round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft with the 45th overall selection.

"Sure it was a disappointment for me (not to be selected in the first round of the Entry Draft)," said the Ste-Catherine, Que. native.

"When my name was called by Montreal, I forgot that I was a second-round selection, and for me, it was a dream come true."

Latendresse went on to say that "getting selected by Montreal in the second round was better than getting selected in the first round by (another team)."

The Habs have struck gold in the past when selecting players in that draft position.

Carbonneau (1979), Mathieu Schneider (1987), and Jose Theodore (1994) were all selected by the Canadiens a slot ahead of Latendresse in their respective years.

Despite a strong training camp in 2005, Latendresse failed to crack the roster of former Montreal head coach, Bob Gainey, returning to the Voltigeurs and registered a career-high 43 goals and 83 points in just 51 games.

With Gainey returning to the Montreal front office for the 2006-07 season, it was Carbonneau, the former Canadiens star and current head coach, that Latendresse had to convince that he deserved one of the few-available roster spots.

Disappointed with last season's seventh place finish in the Eastern Conference, Montreal fans sent a clear message to both the general manager and to the head coach that they expected Latendresse to play in the Bell Centre this season.

That, in turn, fueled the player.

"Maybe playing at home in front of my people helped me make the team," said Latendresse. "It's a real honour (to pull on this sweater), and to be playing in front of my family and my friends."

"The options were either return to juniors or play in the NHL," said Latendresse, adding that "I'd rather play 10 minutes in the NHL, than 30 minutes in junior hockey."

Carbonneau was the one person he had to convince.

"Coming back (following the off-season), there weren't a lot of surprises on this club," said the Habs' rookie head coach.

While Carbonneau did not have the opportunity to see Latendresse play before this season, he certainly read the press clippings.

"I heard a lot of good things about him from last year," said Carbonneau, "but I had no expectations and I didn't want any. I wanted to have an open mind."

Latendresse did little to disappoint Carbonneau and assistant head coach, Kirk Muller.

"(Latendresse) was one of best players in pre-season and that's why he's still (on the Montreal roster)," said Carbonneau. "Obviously the regular season is a different thing in that there is more competition and the games are tighter."

With just four games under his belt at the NHL level, Latendresse is showing the coaching staff glimpses of what the future holds.

Averaging 12 shifts a night, and almost 10 minutes a game, Carbonneau is pleased with what he sees so far.

"As long as he can get eight-plus minutes a game at the NHL level, he's going to improve," said Carbonneau. "What I didn't want was bring in a (rookie) and then have him play two games out of five, or five out of ten games...I don't think that serves a purpose."

"He's the kind of kid that, if I can keep him in the games and have him play 5-10 minutes, he'll be alright.

Perhaps a few people, including Latendresse, were shocked when his shoulder was tapped to log some time on special teams in the team's first four contests.

The coach was quick to point out that while he was not "setting his youngster up to fail, or in any way hurt the team," Carbonneau simply "didn't want to spend three-to-four months finding out what he's made of."

"I want to know what he can handle, and what he has in his game," said Carbonneau.

While the Habs will ultimately look to Latendresse to dent some twine, it's solid play at both ends of the ice that will help him realize his potential.

It's also the style embraced by Carbonneau, a three-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's best defencive forward and assistant coaches Kirk Muller and Doug Jarvis (a Selke Trophy winner in 1983-84).

Latendresse has a great upside, he's a good kid, and he wants to learn," said Carbonneau.

"He should have made the team last year."

Agree? Disagree? Questions? Send all comments to: topcatsports@canoemail.com


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