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(Steve Mitchell)
(Steve Mitchell)

Habs need Pouliot, Kostitsyn to spread their wings Add to ...

Economists have long bemoaned Quebec's sagging productivity. If any happened to check out the overflowing parking lot of the Montreal Canadiens' practice facility they would have discovered another piece of the explanation.

Monday was indisputably a work and school day.

Yet the stands at the Habs' training camp were packed with hundreds of people who will have been wary of being photographed, lest their bosses or assistant principals stumble across the evidence of what they were really up to.

"Last year, my first year, it was an eye-opener, but I think it's great, people are excited," winger Brian Gionta said.

The fans were treated to a 50-minute scrimmage - interest is such that several media outlets have taken to live-blogging and tweeting almost every rush - that involved two of the players whose performance will be key to the Habs' chances this season.

Neither Benoît Pouliot nor Andrei Kostitsyn did all that much to grab the spectators' attention, which was also the problem in the playoffs last season.

The 23-year-old Pouliot and the 25-year-old Kostitsyn are candidates to play on the top two lines, and while they are a study in contrasts, they share a similar position and their names are written into the lineup chart in pencil, not ink.

Both are in contract years, both play the left wing, both have a history of underachievement and inconsistency, both have been criticized for a lack of commitment, and both are on the hot seat.

"I don't think I need to send them any messages," said Habs head coach Jacques Martin, before sending a clear message: "I think they've understood, if you look at last year in the playoffs, that the process starts in the summer and to prepare yourself to compete from the outset of camp. These are individuals we'll continue to evaluate as we go along."

Clearly, the coach isn't prepared to gift either of his mercurial wingers a spot on the left side.

"I understand that it's up to me. I just have to grab it with both hands. … I want to play on one of the top two lines, that's my goal," said Pouliot, who scored 13 goals in his first 23 games after coming over in a trade with the Minnesota Wild, but just one in his last 34, including an o-fer in the playoffs (he finished with 17 goals on the year).

Kostitsyn scored just 15 times in an injury-plagued campaign, and got all his playoff scoring out of the way in the second game of the first round against the Washington Capitals, notching a hat trick. He had just three assists to show for his final 17 games.

Pouliot, who stepped up his workout regimen this summer and skated with Pittsburgh Penguins players Kris Letang and Maxime Talbot, said it's a fact of NHL life that "there's always a young guy who wants to take your job, I know I can't take anything for granted."

Gionta, who made up a line with centre Scott Gomez and Pouliot for most of the second half of last season, said his young teammate needs to block out the criticism and distractions and focus on playing with intensity.

"For all young guys, you can't get involved in mind games. … He's got to trust in his ability, confidence is a big thing," he said.

Several rookies have signalled their intent to compete for a roster spot with strong showings in the opening stages of camp.

Chief among them is Danish centre Lars Eller - acquired from the St. Louis Blues for goalie Jaroslav Halak.

But several less-heralded youngsters are also trying to take advantage of whatever slim chance they have.

Ian Schultz, a onetime second round pick who was a throw-in on the Halak deal, is a rugged, gap-toothed presence who could add some heft along the boards.

And 2009 first-round draft pick Louis Leblanc has acquitted himself well; while there's little chance he'll stay in camp much beyond this week, the 19-year-old should feature in at least one preseason game in his first NHL camp.

So will former Drummondville Voltigeurs winger Gabriel Dumont, a pesky fireplug who said when camp began his aim was to play an exhibition contest at the Bell Centre.

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