Tuesday, September 11, 2007

From Belarus With Love

Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, as well as Mikhail Grabovski. The Canadiens have been doing a good job at scouring the steppes for hockey talent in recent years. If they keep sending us this kind of talent, we should look into sister city status for Minsk.

With reporters and bloggers on other sites looking at our rookies, I thought I’d have a look at what could become a big part of future Habs teams – the Belarussian contingent.

Belarus has reportedly made a concerted effort since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to promote and develop its youth hockey. The Canadiens were paying attention, harvesting three of the top products of the effort:

Andrei Kostitsyn – 6’ 0”, 202 lbs.
The former 10th overall pick looks like he finally found his place on the Canadiens at the end of last season. He has some highlight reel potential (as we all saw with that crazy behind the back pass to Plekanec), but what I like about him most is his strength on the puck. For that matter, he also displays quite a bit of strength off the puck.

If you’re strong on the puck at age 22 against established NHLers, the future does look good. Afterall, a lot of the game nowadays takes place along the boards, where strength is paramount. And, if you’re going to try and stickhandle into the opposition’s zone, you can’t be weak on your feet.

All his scouting reports talk about a great shot, and we’ve seen a few. Hopefully, he’ll use that more in the upcoming season and find a few goals on his stats sheet at the end of the year.

If I were the coach, I would be trying to get Andrei going before I worry about Latendresse. I think he could use a strong start on a top line (possibly with Plekanec or Koivu), which I think would set him up for a break-out streak where he gets comfortable enough to use that strength and shot. Latendresse already shoots, is already playing physically and is going to score on his own, I think. Kostitsyn just needs a nudge I feel.

Sergei Kostitsyn – 5’ 11”, 190 lbs.
Sergei was a very shrewd late round pick indeed. And so was going to the London Knights, the 80s Oilers of the OHL. Sergei scored an astonishing number of goals and points for the after-thought little brother pick. Coming through the ranks, his stats look a whole lot more impressive than Andrei’s did. Finishing third in league scoring behind “draft jumper” John Tavares and teammate Patrick Kane a year after winning OHL rookie of the year. He did play with first-round quality players in both his years in London. Some ask where he would be without Kane and Gagner. Others have asked the legitimate counter question: where would those two be without Kostitsyn.

It is encouraging to hear nice words about Sergei coming fomr both his coach and assistant coach in London, not least because they had quite the careers themselves (Dale Hunter and Dave Gagner). Both think he is NHL-bound, and qualify that his game has the physical edge you need to be an NHLer. I’d think they know what they’re talking about, the two of them.

With a training camp invite, it is not inconceivable that Sergei makes the Habs this year. However, with all the young talent on one-way contracts, it makes it a little less likely. If he has a stunning season in Hamilton, he could be up for a few games later in the year with a view to a trade or starting in 2008.

Mikhail Grabovski – 5’ 11””, 183 lbs.

The only non-Kostitsyn of the three, Grabovski has made a name for himself without a brother to lean on. Putting up some great numbers two years ago in the Russian league (full of players his senior) speaks to how skilled he is. And last year’s training camp performance produced more than a few cries for a place for him in Montreal. He did eventually play a few games in the NHL, not looking too out of place.

Last season was a successful apprenticeship to the North American game, by most accounts. From what I have seen, he is a good skater with good passing. He has good balance, though not the strength of Andrei Kostitsyn. He does look a bit faster and is quite a shifty guy out on the ice.

I think Grabovski will be given a chance this year, but as the youngsters will be numerous, the onus will be on him to reproduce his last year’s form. I don’t think there’s much reason he would be held back if he stands out. I look forward to him giving some of the older guys a real push for their spots. There’s nothing wrong with having good players like him down in Hamilton either, winning and ready to be called up when needed.

A few facts about their native Belarus to close it up.

The Lonely Planet has a lot of nice things to say about the former Soviet republic:

Belarus is a vast steppe straddling the shortest route between Moscow and the Polish border. Wide stretches of unbroken birch groves, vast forested marshlands and wooden villages amid rolling green and black fields give it a haunting beauty.

The NHL website has lots of info on the country’s hockey and heritage:

Belarus' hockey heritage is one of the few aspects of its culture that was not suppressed under communism. Belarusians have long had a deep love of hockey that has survived and thrived for decades.

The Stanley Cup has been to Minsk, thanks to Nikolai Khabibulin who is married to a Belarussian.

As of 2006, Belarus had 14 indoor arenas in total – probably at least 3-fold less than the Montreal area alone.

Wayne Gretzky has Belarussian heritage – his grandfather moved from Belarus to Canada in the early part of the 20th century.

Famous NHLers from the past 15 years are few, current ones include Hab Andrei and Ruslan Salei, and future ones include our boys Sergei and Mikhail.

I think we may owe a debt of gratitude to this country’s continued and recently revitalised commitment to hockey development. Hopefully the Stanley Cup will be making a return trip to Gorky Park in short shrift.

1 comment:

  1. I really expect Andrei to make the team this year. In his latest recall last season, he's proven he could be a valuable asset on offense. Very creative. I sure hope we finally see his blasting shot this year. I remember his first goal which was a powerful one-timer but I can't recall any other time where he used his shot.

    I think Sergei and Mikhail will have to wait for injuries to get called back because I don't see where they'd fit on the roster right now.

    Let's hope this Belarussian contingent is up to our expectations and don't end up being Perezhogins...