Canadiens training camp notes

By Jason Menard

The fight for roster spots at Montreal Canadiens training camp should be downright offensive with five forwards battling it out for just two positions. And at least one Habs prospect is trying to make sure that youth will be served.

With the recent signing of Michael Ryder, the Canadiens’ roster is pretty much set, but there remains a pair of forward spots up for grabs. At a recent golf tournament, Habs’ General Manager Bob Gainey put forth a quintet of names as having a solid opportunity to break camp with the big club: Marcel Hossa, Alex Perezhogin, Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, and Andrei Kostitsyn.

But one of the most interesting stories coming out of Habs camp has been the performance of second-round pick Guillaume Latendresse. To date he has shown consistence brilliance in both the rookie camp and in intra-squad games. Latendresse’s performance has done more than just validate the organization’s decision to trade up to get him in this year’s entry draft – it has the club seriously considering making him the first 18-year-old player to don the bleu, blanc, et rouge since Petr Svoboda in 1984.

He’s used his 6’2, 225-pound frame to maximum effect to date, planting himself in front of the net and throwing his body around. But the Habs brass needs to determine whether his game is as NHL-ready as his body. Another factor in the decision comes from the fact that Latendresse still has junior eligibility remaining, meaning the club must weigh whether he can develop any further in the QMJHL or if his progress would be better at the NHL level.

While not etched in stone, there’s a good bet that Higgins, who enjoyed a break-out season last year finishing second in team scoring, will crack the big club. The fact that he was invited, and secretly attended, the U.S. Olympic Team’s tryouts in Denver, bodes well for his perceived development. The thinking amongst some of the pundits in Montreal is that if Higgins is good enough to be considered for a national squad, then he’s surely ready to take the next step in his development.

In fact, if the team’s web site is any indication, Higgins appears to have made the grade. The official site breaks down their players into two sections: Roster and Prospects. While Higgins still appears on the prospects list, his name has found its way onto the roster section as well.

Joining him on the roster, and well-positioned to break camp with the Habs, is the Slovakian winger Hossa. Following three years in Hamilton with the odd cup of coffee in Montreal, this may be a make-or-break year for Hossa. Montreal’s farm system is deep in talented young forwards and Hossa is running out of chances to make an impression. However, his decision to spend the locked-out year in Sweden may have paid off, as his impressive performance overseas seems to have given his confidence a boost, and that’s been reflected on the ice.

Hossa needs to translate his talent into consistency. With a slew of young up-and-comers nipping at his heels, the Slovakian winger won’t have the luxury of overpromising and underperforming.

Another player with a solid chance of staying in Montreal is forward Alex Perezhogin, who skated for the first time officially on North American ice on Sept. 14, following his year-long suspension for a stick-swinging incident. He has impressed team members and the media alike with his speed, skating, and goal-scoring prowess, and appears to have benefited from a year riding shotgun with Jaromir Jagr in the Russian Elite League.

To make the roster, Perezhogin needs to show that he can benefit from the NHL’s rule changes, designed to make the game faster and more open. Offense is at a premium this year, and Perezhogin must deliver.

A less likely scenario is that last year’s leading scorer Tomas Plekanec finally makes the grade. His status is more precarious and he could find himself back in Hamilton as a late cut from camp. And despite Kostitsyn coming into camp with his eyes set on a roster spot, the general consensus appears to be that he could use another year in the AHL.

Coming into this season, the Habs appeared to be comfortable with Cristobal Huet as their backup to Vézina Trophy-winner José Theodore. But an injury that may keep him out of the line-up until November or December (and Gainey has expressed doubts that he’ll be back until the New Year), has opened the window of opportunity wide for netminder Yann Danis.

Danis will be auditioning for the role this training camp and has to make an impression quickly. Gainey has a few million dollars tucked away under the salary cap that can be used to obtain some veteran relief should the need arise, so Danis has to produce between the pipes.

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