Latendresse gives Wild's roster 'big' boost

November, 24, 2009

What does it take to make a rare NHL trade in the first quarter of the season?

When the Minnesota Wild dealt forward Benoit Pouliot to the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday in exchange for winger Guillaume Latendresse, the salaries swapping rosters were identical to the last dime: $803,250.

"It certainly makes it easier," Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told on Tuesday. "So many teams are right up against the cap. It's hard for anybody to take on a lot of money at this point."

Not only do both players make the same money, but they're also both in the last year of their entry-level deals; that's an important factor, as well. Given the unfulfilled promise both youngsters had shown so far in their NHL careers, both teams would have been lukewarm to forking out raises in second contracts.

Now, both teams hope a change of scenery will give each player a boost.

"One's 23 and one's 22," said Fletcher. "Both are talented young guys with lots of promise and lots of pressure as well. Sometimes you see this with young players; they get an opportunity to go to a new team and get refreshed, reboot so to speak. Whatever has happened in the past kind of goes away and they get a chance to start fresh. They're both good players with good talent."

Pouliot is the bigger name, having gone fourth overall in the 2005 NHL draft. Latendresse is the bigger player, his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame giving the appearance of a prototypical power forward even if he's shown brief glimpses of that so far.

"It's hard to find guys with his size and his skill," said Fletcher. "We're going to do what we can to develop him, but certainly his skill set is pretty hard to find."

If you're a Habs fan, you're praying this isn't John LeClair all over again, a slow-developing power forward that becomes a stud elsewhere. If you're a Wild fan, you're stressing out that Pouliot will suddenly discover how to apply an immense offensive talent that has been nearly invisible so far in the NHL.

"I believe Benoit is going to have a good career," said Fletcher. "I wasn't trying to trade Benoit Pouliot. Both teams thought this was a better fit. We wanted more size in our top six and a little bit more of a power approach, and, obviously, [the Canadiens] were looking for different attributes, as well. I think, in this case, he wasn't a guy that I put a note out around the league. I hadn't waived him or anything. He wasn't a guy we were trying to get rid of. His skill and speed were attributes we really liked."

Pouliot has nine goals and nine assists in 65 NHL games. That's not what the Wild expected when they chose him over the likes of Anze Kopitar, Carey Price, Devin Setoguchi, Marc Staal, Niclas Bergfors, T.J. Oshie, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Paul Stastny, Mason Raymond and Darren Helm in 2005.

"He was under such immense pressure here," veteran hockey writer Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune told me Tuesday. "They blew their 2004 pick in A.J. Thelen. It doesn't look like James Sheppard [2006 draft] will be the guy they thought. This was their 2005 pick, and he went before Anze Kopitar. That's pressure."

Russo believes the Wild made the right decision.

"To me, it's a no-risk move," said Russo. "Pouliot was not going to work here. You're getting a guy with a ton of upside. I've watched Pouliot play here; I was a lot more impressed with him this year. He worked harder on and off the ice. But there's just something about him that he wasn't able to get fulfill his potential. But maybe a move will help him."

Fletcher said he had been talking with the Habs for a bit, and not just about these players, although he obviously would not say who else. My guess is, Montreal was pushing hard on dumping Sergei Kostitsyn instead, the mercurial Belarus skater who was recalled from AHL Hamilton on Monday after being demoted last month.

In the end, I think the Wild made the safer investment here. Size doesn't grow on trees. I think Latendresse will become a solid, second-line, power-winger type for years to come. The Canadiens got the guy that can still possibly become a first-line offensive threat, but they also took on more risk if he's unable to figure out what it takes to apply his talent at this level.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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