It Hab-Ened Last Night: Oh Andrei, Where Were You?
Last night at the Bell Centre, the Montreal Canadiens improved to a Northeast leading 5-2-1 record with a 3-2 overtime win over the visiting Phoenix Coyotes. In what could only be described as a nail-biter of a game, the big guns showed up, as the line of Plekanec, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn combined for all three of the Canadiens goals. Lars Eller finally broke out in the 3rd period and OT, assisting on the game-winning goal from Kostitsyn, and Carey Price put it all together, making timely saved and slowing the pace of the game late to give the Canadiens a chance at winning.
The win put the Canadiens ahead of the slumping Toronto Maple Leafs in the Northeast and in a 3-way tie with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in East and 3rd place in the overall NHL standings.
The Canadiens have now won their last 2 and 4 of their last five. They have not lost back-to-back games. Needless to say, both the team and the fans have to be feeling good heading into a heavy portion of the schedule, which includes three games in the next four nights. The Habs will host the New York Islanders (4-2-2) on Wednesday night, before heading to Long Island for the return game on Friday, and returning to Montreal to host the Florida Panthers (3-3-0) on Saturday
I hate to be negative - who am I kidding, I love to be negative - but the excellent start for the Montreal Canadiens isn't all fun in the sun for this team and it's management.
While, obviously, the focus should be on winning games and ensuring that the Canadiens don't have to wait until mid-April to secure a playoff spot, there are certainly certain issues that the coach, the GM, and the fans need to keep in the back of their minds heading into the meat of the season.
There is, of course, the powerplay, which has been completely flaccid. Through 29 opportunities (the sixth smallest amount in the league at the moment), the Canadiens have scored only 2 powerplay goals. The only team with a worse percentage is the Florida Panthers, who the Canadiens will welcome to the Bell Centre on Saturday night. The impending return of defenseman Andrei Markov should immediately improve the Canadiens' man-advantage, but with all the offensive tools that the Canadiens have, including a talented top six, an experienced bottom six and defenseman such as Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, and especially PK Subban, who have been known to produce points, the Canadiens shouldn't be having so much trouble producing on the powerplay, with or without Markov.
Another issue that Markov's return should help is the defense's ability to insulate Carey Price. They have actually gotten a lot better at it as the season has progressed, but the Canadiens aren't out of the woods just yet. After starting the season with games where he faced 24, 38 and 48 shots, respectively, Price didn't have to face any more than 23 shots up until last night, where the Coyotes peppered a respectable 29 shots on the young netminder. Still, even when Price has only had to face 19 or 20 shots, four or five of them per game have generally been the highlight reel type of saves that could be game changers. The Canadiens figure in the top 8 teams for shots against, but barely make the top 20 in shots for, with just over 30 a game. It's obviously not that big of an issue with a 5-2-1 record, but something to keep an eye on when players start getting worn down once again, and if the injuries begin to pile on once again.
There is also the issue that the 2nd line of Gomez, Gionta and (question mark?) has been completely ineffective where the first line of Plekanec, Cammalleri and Kostitsyn have been scoring goals (they've scored a whopping 11 out of the team's 20 goals) and winning games for the Habs. Gomez and Gionta have a goal each, and the only one of their many linemates to score is Benoit Pouliot, and he's still working his way off the 4th line. Neither Gomez or Gionta have been bad. Gomez has been defensively responsible, and he has a couple of assist. He definitely hasn't been hurting the team. As for Gionta, he leads the team with 32 shots and simply hasn't been able to bury his chances. But the Canadiens aren't going to get anywhere with a single line scoring 55% of their goals. Assuming things continue on a reasonable pace, the Plekanec line should finish with anywhere between 80 and 100 goals. But Gomez and Gionta are going to have to find a way to contribute more than 2 goals in 8 games, and they're going to have to find a way to start producing and find a consistent linemate.
And then there is, of course, the "issue" of Andrei Kostitsyn.
As mentioned above, Kostitsyn has figured into a lot of the early success of the Canadiens. Through 8 games, Andrei leads the Canadiens in points and goals with a point a game, including 5 goals (two of which are game winners) and 3 assists and a plus/minus rating of +5 that's second only to Mike Cammalleri's +7. Kostitsyn has only taken a single minor penalty, and his shooting percentage is an impressive 21%
To say that the young Belorussian winger's hot start isn't exactly what we're used to seeing with Kostitsyn would be kind of an understatement.
Kostitsyn is notorious for his slow starts, almost every season. On top of that, he's been a consistent source for criticism from fans, as well as controversy from the media. Forgetting the "personal" issues he and his brother suffered from the last couple of years, Kostitsyn's on-ice play over the course of his NHL career can only be described as inconsistent.
Andrei finally earned a full-time roster spot with the Canadiens in 2007, after two years of playing 12 and 22 games with the Canadiens, and a year with the Bulldogs pre-lockout, not to mention losing out on the final spot with the team at the start of the 2006-07 season to a much less deserving Guillaume Latendresse. In his first full NHL season, Kostitsyn put up 26 goals and 53 points, with a +15 ratings, playing alongside Alex Kovalev and Thomas Plekanec, numbers that can at least be attributed in part to arguably the best season of Kovalev's career. The next year, Kostitsyn fell to 23 goals and 41 points, respectable numbers considering the letdown from the prior year, both for Kovalev as well as the team in general.
But last season, things just completely unraveled for Kostitsyn. Andrei started the year slow, and it didn't get much better from there. A knee injury suffered in November later turned into knee surgery early in the new year. Andrei ended up missing 20 games, and although he would finish with an acceptable 15 goals and 33 points, with a +1 rating, compared to the career year his linemate Thomas Plekanec had, and the 26 goals scored by his other linemate, Cammalleri, it's almost as if Kostitsyn was a non-factor for most of the year. He had a decent playoffs, with 3 goals and 8 points in 19 games, but his play left little to the imagination.
Simply put, it didn't seem like Kostitsyn was having fun out there, which is certainly not the case this year. Attribute it to whatever you want. Attribute it to the fact that he's a pending free agent (unrestricted for the first time in his career) in July, or attribute it to the fact that his brother is far, far away with the Nashville Predators, reducing the amount of off-ice distractions, or whatever else you want.
To me, Kostitsyn, is as much of an enigma as he's ever been, since being drafted 10th overall in 2003 over the likes of Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Zach Parise, to early here in the 2010-11 season, where he has more points than any of those players, who Habs fans could only dream of having on their team.
All of these things considered, there are several questions that need to be asked, by the fans as well as management:
1- Will this hot streak from Kostitsyn last?
2- Can the Canadiens afford a career year from Kostitsyn with his contract expiring on June 30, 2011?
3- If they can't what should be done with the enigmatic forward from Belarus?
Truth is that if the answer to question #1 is "yes", then the answer to question #2 automatically becomes "no". With a lot of big contracts still on the cap for a few more years up front, and most of the contracts on defense expiring, not to mention Carey Price's free agency in 2012, the Canadiens will simply not be able to afford a player like Kostitsyn, who will definitely be looking to cash out next summer.
That being said, what do you do with him? Do you take the chance and trade him now, knowing that there really isn't much to replace him with? Jacques Martin has had enough trouble finding a linemate for Gomez and Gionta, as discussed above and in previous blogs. If you do try and shop him among teams, what could be the potential return, knowing his history?
Obviously, with only 8 games played, and Markov set to return, trade talks may be a little bit rash, but there is definitely an issue or two to deal with if the Canadiens decide to keep Kostitsyn for the remainder of the season, or even if they want to cut it close and try and trade him at the deadline. At the very least, it would be nothing but beneficial to have a discussion about what Kostitysn might be worth, right now, on the open market.
If it were up to me, I would keep Kostitsyn and try to resign him. An extension might be out of the question until the likes of Markov, Gorges, and others are under contract, as all of those would need to basically fit under the cap, but I've always been a fan of his despite his troubles, and the potential has always been there.
But in a cap world, with the limitations presented by the Gomez contract, among other things, it's unfortunate to say that keeping Andrei Kostitsyn on this roster past this season might be nothing more than a pipe dream. And the way he's been playing, you can't help but wonder whether the best option this team would have would be to trade him around December or January.
Until then, let's hope that Kostitsyn can keep up with his pace and finally live up to the hype, as looking at the Canadiens' stat sheet and seeing Andrei Kostitsyn above all the other names is has certainly been a good feeling.
What do you think? Should the Canadiens try and sign Kostitsyn to an extension now, wait to see what happens by the end of the season, or look at potentially trading him? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!
It's going to be a big week for the Habs, as stated, with 3 games in 4 nights well on their way, but it will also be a big week for TCL, as starting tonight, we will be bringing you a live blog every single night! Micheal Aldred will cover the Leafs games tonight and Thursday, as well as Saturday's Rangers/Leafs match along with Glen Miller, I will be covering Wednesday's game between the Isles and Habs, and Rob McGowan and myself will be covering Friday's Habs/Isles rematch! So be sure to stay locked on TCL all week for all the live blog fun!