Monday, October 15, 2007

The Habs future and the two Andreis – Part 2: Andrei the Younger

As I said in Part 1: Andrei the First, the Habs bandwagon is chugging along. And while many have a temporary fixation with the Long Island boys and a certain young goaltender, there are two Andreis who I feel will play an enormous part in the future success or failure of this team.

For Part 2, I will examine the mysterious and mysteriously overlooked prospect that is Andrei the Younger, or Kostit the Elder if you like. As Markov will have to be Doug Harvey to Price's Plante; Andrei Kostitsyn will have to play the role of offensive stalwart Dickie Moore.

Born in the USSR – like Markov – in 1985, Andrei Kostitsyn did most of his growing up in the new country of Belarus. Hi formative hockey years were also spent in Belarus, where he played in the Belarusian league, subsequently moving to his hometown club of Novopolotsk in a junior-level Russian league. After putting up excellent stats at both these levels he eventually made the move to CSKA in Moscow, where he played on their teams at various levels of Russian league play. He would eventually stick with the senior team at the CSKA club by the latter portion of the 2002-2003 season, the year he was drafted.

Kostitsyn's story leading up to the 2003 NHL entry draft, however, is not one that can be told by stats alone. Much like Anze Kopitar, he had really emerged from a country that up until the mid-90s had been a real hockey backwater. While he had impressive stats in Belarusian play, there was no benchmark for this. His play at CSKA was too limited and brief to result in bags of goals.

So why so highly touted?

Well, for one thing, his play at WJCs and under-18s for Belarus showed that when he was placed in a dominant role on a team, he responded with production. Besides that, it was the way he scored, shot and skated that made him a hot commodity.

When the Canadiens selected Andrei Kostitsyn 10th overall in the 2003 draft, there was a very mixed response. 2003, afterall, was as deep as drafts get in the first round. Before him: Fleury, Staal, Horton, Zherdev, Vanek, Michalek, Suter, Coburn, Phaneuf. After him: Getzlaf, Perry and Parise. But on the day, general consensus was a great gamble. For Kostitsyn has epilepsy, which made the teams that chose Michalek, Suter, Coburn and Phaneuf stay away. Many scouts, including Timmins had in as a top 5 talent – which obviously says a lot among those players.

What exactly are these talents then? Well, I've noticed his strength, his puck control, his shot and even his passing. But I think Hockey's Future says it best:

What sets him apart from other players is his ability to handle the puck at top speed.

In all my years of watching hockey, this quality has been the most rare. There's many a fast skater who ends up dumping and chasing and many a skilled puckhandler who can't progress quickly enough before the reinforcements come raging back. This is the kind of thing people said about Pavel Bure, which in terms of players we need, is dead on the right type. Being able to stickhandle at top speed cannot be learned at the NHL level, it has to be there from the get go, and that's why he is such an exciting player. The best thing of all is that watching him yourself, you can see the truth in that assessment, that is what makes him different.

Kostitsyn did, what by Habs standards was a short apprenticeship, of two and two thirds seasons in Hamilton. His first year was much like his time at CSKA – he was young and underplayed. His second year, he was upon a top line and second in scoring behind Corey Locke. Last season, before his call-up, he was leading the team and showing his flair and skills. So two years till take off in Hamilton, I would expect the same up in Montreal.

So far with the Habs, Andrei has been a bit quiet – 3 goals and 14 points in 34 games. But as he has shown in the past, put him in a position of responsibility, with more ice time, and he delivers returns. This year, he has been granted a place on the second line and he's already begun to flourish. One goal doesn't tell the whole story for certain. He has been confident and involved. Just last game, he had a third period to rave about – making it into Tobalev's dome for the first time this season.

Where Andrei Markov is almost the finished product, Kostitsyn is all about potential.

Of all the Habs prospects, he is the one who could one day score 50 goals. Probably the only one (the one exception possibly being his little brother). Of course, he is coming off a one-goal season, so we'll have to exercise a bit of patience (and hope) to see that day, but the fact remains of the list of players coming up, he is the premier offensive talent – Higgins will score and help us in an infinite number of other ways to win, but I don't think he has 50 goals in him (even he stated his goal is to be a 40-goal man); Latendresse too may score many, but unless we become Philadelphia won't fit well enough with the style to top the half century.

To start winning comfortably and genuinely challenging for the Cup again, I feel we need an elite scorer – one who can score against tough defenses and from out of nothing. Andrei Kostitsyn is our Great White Hope. May his time on the second line help him develop and grow so that one day soon we can put talk of even strength scoring troubles to bed for good.

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