Daily Hab-it: You take the good, you take the bad
Montreal Canadiens right wing Andrei Kostitsyn (centre) celebrates his third period goal against the Ottawa Senators with teammates Tomas Plekanec, Yannick Weber (left) and Lars Eller (hidden) during third period NHL hockey action in Ottawa, Friday January 21, 2011. The Candiens defeated the Senators 7-1. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Towards the beginning of the season, as Andrei Kostitsyn was jumping out of the gates with six goals and four assists in his first nine games, Jacques Martin was asked to assess his play.
Martin, not one who is prone to post-game joking, cracked one about how Kostitsyn's performance was coinciding with a contract year.
Not very long afterwards, Kostitsyn would go into a rut where he scored four goals and got nine assists in 34 games. It was a stretch that had people grumbling once again about his heart once, but one that also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that his contract status had nothing to do with his play or effort level.
In fact, his effort is probably the only part of Kostitsyn's game that hasn't wavered all season, in spite of him being scratched for a game seemingly because of it.
He's consistently been a physical presence on the forecheck, one of the only Canadiens forwards that makes opposing defencemen pay for retrieving pucks in their own end, and he's actually been a reasonably sound player defensively.
Over the last three games, Kostitsyn has been back with the line he began the season with on the right of Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. And in the last two games, the 2-1 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks that clinched a fourth straight playoff berth and Thursday night's 3-2 overtime loss in Ottawa, we've seen a ton of the good Kostitsyn and some of the bad Kostitsyn as well.
The irony there is, in my eyes, what makes Kostitsyn good leads to the moments that make him bad.
But let's start with the good.
Over the last two games Kostitsyn had 11 shots on goal – a team-high six against Ottawa and tied for the team-high with five against Chicago. He played the way Martin has always said he wants him to play, and that's involved (or impliqué).
In both games, Kostitsyn made an impact with his vision. Against Chicago, he found Cammalleri alone in the high slot from behind the net for the game's opening goal before setting up P.K. Subban's game-winner in overtime with a great cross-ice feed.
And against Ottawa, with his goalie pulled at the other end, Kostitsyn found Cammalleri with a similar cross-ice pass to set up the game-tying goal with just 10.1 seconds left in regulation.
Then there's the bad, and that was Kostitsyn taking three offensive-zone penalties over the two games. Two of them negated Canadiens power plays – including a first period slash behind the play only six seconds into one against Ottawa on Thursday – and all three of them killed momentum for his team.
The problem is that when Kostitsyn is feeling it, when he wants to compete, he has a tendency to take these kinds of penalties.
They will surely be maddening for Martin, but they are the result of a mindset he wants Kostitsyn to have – that of a competitor whose aggression will make him a difficult player to face, but which also makes him prone to penalties.
It's a double-edged sword, but in my eyes it's one that the coach and his teammates are willing to live with if it means they get all the benefits the good Kostitsyn brings.
"Andrei's a big man, a strong man, and we need him to be a power forward," Martin said after the Chicago game. "Sometimes he'll be called and sometimes...it's a fine line. He made two great plays tonight on both goals."
And that sums it up perfectly, you'll take the bad as long as it's outweighed by the good.
Lately, that's been the case for Kostitsyn.
Since the game in Vancouver on Feb. 22 where Kostitsyn was placed on a line with Lars Eller and Travis Moen, he is tied with Cammalleri for the team lead in points with 16 in 21 games. Kostitsyn's seven goals are tied with Subban for tops on the team since that date, and he's scored six of them at even strength, a team high over the same span.
Overall this season, Kostitsyn sits fifth on the team in points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time, ahead of such players as Max Pacioretty, Brian Gionta, Cammalleri, and, needless to say, Scott Gomez.
As the Canadiens enter the playoffs, the fact that both Kostitsyn and Cammalleri are producing of late is a very important factor in assessing the team's chances of advancing through the first round.
Tomas Plekanec has gone through a late-season lull after literally carrying the team on his shoulders through the first half of the season, with only two goals and eight assists in his last 19 games.
But over the last two games playing with Cammalleri and Kostitsyn, Plekanec has appeared to have more jump and his speed has been effective, even if he has no numbers to show for it.
Couple that with Gomez and Gionta also showing something with Mathieu Darche on their wing the past three games, the line accounting for three goals in that span, and the Canadiens suddenly have two lines that require attention from the opposing coach.
It's something that has rarely been said about this team all season and, to me, it's been triggered by the improved play of Kostitsyn, who has had many games over the past six weeks where he was the team's best player.
As I wrote back in January, Kostitsyn will always be burdened by his draft positioning and the fact his draft class will probably go down as the best in NHL history. Most people see him and think of what he could have been, like a Jeff Carter (selected one pick behind him) or a Brent Seabrook (four picks behind him) or a Zach Parise (seven picks behind him).
They also see the combination of raw talent and size and imagine a player who could be a perennial All-Star.
Except you can go through the exact same exercise for every draft in NHL history and look really smart. The fact is, at the time of the 2003 draft Kostitsyn was considered a top-5 talent, one that dropped to 10th overall only because teams were scared away by his epilepsy.
After Canadiens team physician Dr. David Mulder assured the team Kostitsyn's condition could be kept under control with proper medication, picking him in that spot was a no brainer.
He has not, and likely never will, live up to where he was drafted despite having the talent to do so. But that does not mean he's not a useful player, which brings us back to Martin's early-season joke about Kostitsyn being in a contract year.
My buddy Brian Wilde has a blog post about the need for Pierre Gauthier to lock up Carey Price and Subban as soon as possible, and I couldn't agree more. But the Kostitsyn situation is far trickier.
He is a restricted free agent that is one year away from unrestricted free agency, which puts Gauthier in a bit of a difficult spot. Does he pay for some of Kostitsyn's UFA years in the hopes that what we've seen over the past six weeks is for real? Does he simply sign Kostitsyn to a one-year deal and reap the benefits of what would be a true contract year? Or does he let Kostitsyn walk, as many in this city likely want?
Without being around the guy all the time the way coaches and players are, it's hard for me to make a definitive judgment on that. But I will say this; Kostitsyn has shown me something this season that I previously thought was his greatest fault: he's shown he can be coached, that he can learn, that he can play within a system and even thrive in one.
Basically, he's shown that he has hockey sense. Not enough for it to be his greatest attribute, but definitely more than I ever gave him credit for.
That, to me, is an encouraging sign. Yes, it's taken him a long time, but exhibiting a capacity to learn suggests Kostitsyn could finally climb out of the shell of simply being supremely talented and grow into a player who could use that talent in more effective ways.
And if he ever figures that out, it would be a shame if it happened anywhere other than the place where he laid the groundwork to do so.