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Latendresse happy to be Wild, but doesn't rule out eventual return to Habs

MONTREAL - Guillaume Latendresse is quite happy in Minnesota, thank you. But the big winger, whose talent blossomed when he left the Canadiens for the Wild last year, doesn't rule out an eventual return to Montreal.

''Maybe when I'm older,'' the Ste-Catherine, Que., native said Sunday as the Wild prepared to face the Canadiens in an NHL pre-season game. ''At 27 or 28, that would be better for me.

''You're more mature, more experienced, you've lived other things, met other people along the road.''

Latendresse was by no means planning his future, but simply answering a hypothetical question before a pack of reporters outside the visiting dressing room at the Bell Centre. In the age of salary caps and unrestricted free agency, few players can predict where they'll end up.

''I played in Montreal for four years, so I know what it's like,'' he said. ''So maybe OK, but right now my head is really in Minnesota. If I can make a living there all my life I'd like to be there for sure.''

And why not?

Latendresse, who signed a US$5 million, two-year contract with Minnesota this summer, was going nowhere when the Canadiens traded him to the Wild last Nov. 23 for former fourth overall draft pick Benoit Pouliot.

Both players almost immediately went on scoring tears, with Latendresse, who had scored twice in 23 games for the Canadiens, bagging 25 goals in 55 games with the Wild to tie Andrew Brunette for the team lead. Pouliot ended up with 17 goals in 53 games for Montreal, but ended the season in a slump.

Latendresse's totals of 27 goals and 40 points for the season were career highs.

His success caused some hang-wringing in Montreal, which has had trouble developing big forwards with skill and looked to have let one get away in the six-foot-two, 230-pound Latendresse.

Fans had greeted him as a budding French-Canadian star when he joined the Canadiens as a 19-year-old in 2006-07 from the junior Drummondville Voltigeurs. But after a couple of middling 16-goal seasons, they started to get on his back when his goal production dipped.

The Canadiens wanted Latendresse to be a power forward who would throw hits and crash the front of the net, but he had more success as a straight-up offensive forward. Latendresse particularly excelled when Wild coach Todd Richards put him on a line with the talented Martin Havlat and used him on the power play.

By the end of his stay in Montreal, he was plugging away on the fourth line.

''I got good ice time and I capitalized on it,'' he said. 'When I got there they put me in a situation where I could succeed and it went well.

''It's fun to be in an organization where you feel appreciated and that's how I feel in Minnesota.''

Since he left, the new target for Bell Centre fans is goaltender Carey Price, who was selected fifth overall in the same 2005 draft in which they took Latendresse 45th overall.

Latendresse knows what Price is going through.

''Maybe people have to be nicer a bit and try to encourage the guy,'' said Latendresse. ''He's only 23 years old.

''People always say here that good players get traded and play better somewhere else, but they always put pressure on the guy. Why not give Carey time to develop and get some experience? Sometimes people are lacking patience here. Yes, (Jaroslav) Halak did well in the playoffs, but I think Price can do as much or more, so they should try to encourage the player for once.''

Latendresse knows all about the pressure in Montreal, where the 21,273 who pack the Bell Centre every game can lift a player through the roof when things are going well and suffocate him when they're not.

''Each player handles it differently,'' he said. ''At a certain point you say, 'I'm mentally strong, I can handle it,' but you have days where get up and don't feel so strong and then it gets you.

''It's nice to say you don't read the papers, but as a Quebecer, I go to buy a pack of gum at a store and the newspapers are there with a big headline 'Canadiens Outclassed,' or whatever. It's part of the game, but sometimes it's heavy.''

Latendresse expected more boos in their pre-season game, but was more concerned with getting his game ready for the regular season. For the Wild, that begins with a stop in Helsinki, where they will face the Boston Bruins.

The Wild abruptly changed direction last season when they let go of defence-first coach Jacques Lemaire and hired the attack-minded Richards. They also lost scoring star Marian Gaborik and signed Havlat. The result was a fall to 13th place in theNHL Western Conference with nearly 50 more goals allowed.

They also played all but one game last season without skilled centre Pierre-Marc Bouchard due to a concussion. Bouchard has resumed skating and they hope, but are by no means certain, he will be ready to start the regular season.

Just in case, they signed centre Matt Cullen, a former Carolina Hurricane who finished last season in Ottawa.

''If Pierre-Marc can come back I think we'll have a pretty good lineup and good depth,'' said Latendresse. ''I think we can be a big surprise.

''People don't expect that from us. Last year we didn't make the playoffs so we need a big season. A guy like Cullen brings experience. He got a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes. That's something the team needs.''

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