MONTREAL - All signs point to a pressbox seat for second-year winger Guillaume Latendresse when the Montreal Canadiens meet the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.
The 20-year-old was wearing a grey jersey - reserved for the fourth line and the healthy scratches - in practice on Monday. While coach Guy Carbonneau didn't confirm that Latendresse is out, he said "you can see he's on the bubble."
The six-foot-two, 220-pound left-winger, the favourite of the Bell Centre crowd as a rookie last season, is off to a slow start, with no points and only two shots on goal in the NHL club's first four games.
"I think he's searching," added Carbonneau. "He's definitely not playing well.
"I don't know what happened since training camp, where he was really good. I don't know if he's shy or what. That happens sometimes in the second year. Maybe you think too much. He's a big guy and he has to use his size to his advantage and right now he's not doing that."
Rookie centre Mikhail Grabovski, who sat out the last two games, is expected to return as the 2-1-1 Canadiens try to rebound from their first regulation-time loss of the season to Carolina in their home opener on Saturday.
The 2-3-0 Panthers are hardly a powerhouse, but they have given Montreal fits for years. Since joining the NHL in 1993-94, Florida is 24-20-6 against the 24-time Stanley Cup champion.
Last season, the Panthers won three of four from Montreal, with the loss a 1-0 decision in a shootout at the Bell Centre. In their two meetings in Montreal last season, the Canadiens did not score a goal in regulation time.
Grabovski was lined up with Andrei Kostitsyn and Tom Kostopoulos on Monday, while Bryan Smolinski moved into Kostitsyn's spot on left wing with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev.
The fourth line will likely have rookie Kyle Chipchura between Steve Begin and Mathieu Dandenault, with Latendresse and Garth Murray sitting out.
Latendresse had a promising 16 goals and led NHL rookies in hits with 164 last season, when he was made a healthy scratch only once while in a late-season scoring slump. But the Ste-Catherine, Que., native has not looked comfortable on the ice since the start of the season and, with more depth throughout the lineup, Carbonneau has options that weren't there in 2006-07.
No one is more aware of that than Latendresse.
"For sure, I'm not happy about it, but it's only my second season and I guess it's part of the learning process," he said after spending extra time after practice working with assistant coach Kirk Muller. "I'm searching for my game and when you search too much, you hesitate and you're behind the play.
"I have to play my way - try to take the body, take the puck and go to the net. Everything I have to work on is mental, not physical. When the mental side is great, everything else will follow and I'll be the player I was before."
Grabovski's job may also be in danger.
A third unimpressive outing in as many starts could move the Canadiens to consider recalling Maxim Lapierre, who leads the AHL with eight points in three games for the Hamilton Bulldogs. Lapierre played 46 games for the Canadiens last season, but a weak camp put him back with the Bulldogs.
"I know he tried hard, but he wasn't ready to start the season and now he's in the minors," said Carbonneau. "Same with Guillaume - not that we want to send him to Hamilton, but we'll work with him and see how it goes."
Smolinski, who signed as a free agent in the summer, has bounced between lines nearly every game - not because he's played badly, but because he is versatile. He is a defensively responsible veteran who can play either wing or centre, on a checking line or a scoring trio.
The 35-year-old has become a favourite of Carbonneau, who said Smolinski is "the kind of guy you can use on the first or the fourth line."
"It helps me make decisions."
As to skating with the slick Plekanec and Kovalev, Smolinski said, "I'll fill in spots wherever they don't go. I'm a pretty easy guy to play with. I'm not very tricky. I'm pretty nuts and bolts. And I'm sure that's all they ask of me - work hard and do your job."
Veteran Cristobal Huet is to start a second straight game. The French goalie earned it after a brilliant 35-save performance in the 3-1 loss to Carolina, but it almost became a necessity when rookie Carey Price was struck in the neck by a Saku Koivu wrist shot during practice.
The 20-year-old Price had to go to the bench for a few minutes to shake off the pain, but then returned to the net. Later, he had red welts on his neck and right collarbone.
"The ice was pretty bad out there and the puck flipped up on (Koivu)," said Price, who will consider wearing a neck guard in future practices.