Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kostitsyn vs. Gainey

Habs Won't Win The Way They've Been Going

Just a day or two ago, wasn't it, that we were full of Sergei's obvious change in attitude as he scored a couple of goals and made AHL defenders look like, well, AHL defenders.

It seems that Sergei was also full of the same bravado that day as (after reading our praise, probably) he took off to whereabouts unknown. The assumption from the Habs and agent was Russia, the reality is that they probably didn't look very hard. So from suspended to reformed hero to suspended to AHL commuter again – quite a drama down on the farm.

As the facts emerge, we may get to know more on the specifics, but know this – this is a standoff between Gainey and Sergei Kostitsyn. It is a wrangle over talent assessment, fairness, expectation, discipline and who's in charge. It didn't begin yesterday, it began a long time ago.

It goes back to 4th line duty, full-period benchings and of course that scandal and demotion that last saw Sergei in the AHL last February.

Sergei's beef, which several people (surprisingly Michel Bergeron among them) see eye to eye with is that the player has been wrongly overlooked. Anyone with a modicum of hockey watching experience can see he brings much more to the table than Greg Stewart, Matt D'Agostini, Kyle Chipchura or Georges Laraque, and probably more than Pacioretty, Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre. To put it succinctly, Sergei believes as do some others that he is the 6th most talented forward in the whole organization. he believes Gainey is cutting off his nose to spite his face.

On the other side, Gainey has a point. Sergei could be more mature, he could be more concentrated and more prompt. In Gainey's version, he must not only be setting an example to others with demands, but also thinking that Sergei could learn something from dominating the lower league and riding some buses again. He must think that this injection of fury could turn to desire and ultimately performance.

But really, setting an example? Who for?

If we read it as a lesson to other players, it's clear enough: Work hard, do what we ask of you and you will play and play well. It's a nice message. Now, I'm all for setting examples of people. but there comes a certain point when you have to ask, just who is Gainey trying to set an example for with Sergei Kostitsyn?

The next players in the depth chart talent-wise aren't learning anything, because they're all on the Habs despite their poor play and poor attention to detail in their work. While the players after Sergei in Hamilton are Ben Maxwell, Ryan White and Brock Trotter. If any one of them sees the NHL light of day in the next 5 years for any reason other than injuries, it would be a surprise.

My take here is that sometimes, at risk of upsetting the lesser lights, sometimes a GM just has to provide a little more care, a little more attention to the talent that matters. Since finding another 131-point OHLer in the 7th round will be hard and teaching those skills to the schleps that are on the farm already is a pipe dream, Gainey's imperative with Sergei needs to be to hold on to what he has, at least he can return his value in a trade.

I tend to agree with Michel Bergeron (twice in a day, I need a long bath...) who says:

Je crois qu’on est un peu trop puritains à Montréal. Les bons petits gars qui restent assis à manger des biscuits secs et à boire leur verre de lait, ce n’est pas toujours ceux qui te font gagner!

I think they're a bit too puritanical in Montreal. Good little boys who go to bed with milk and cookies – it's not always the best way to build a winner.

He's right you know. Imagine, Chelios had been fined instead of traded. Ditto Corson first time around. If Patrick Kane were a Hab, he'd have been traded by now for fear of tarnishing the tradition of the past – a tradition so sacred that it may take 100 years of losing (seemingly) and a new tradition of total mediocrity to overturn.

If anything is clear from this debacle it is that Sergei is not responding to tough love – at least not without tender explanation on the side. He's a prima donna with some primo talents. If Gainey and co. continue to hard ball him, it appears that everyone will lose, most importantly the Habs.

I think it's high time they take stock of this situation and begin to channel a lot more effort into keeping their most talented prospects happy and wanted. If not, well mediocrity for years.

"We should stop drafting Russians..."

Of course, this whole series of events gives wonderful fodder to those who camped themselves under the anti-Kostitsyn flag. It's a popular place to be these days, and it will be interesting to see whether those there now will pretend this never happened just like when they kissed Kovalev's feet in 2007-08. Anyway, arguments on trading them, whether they should play and where are all bordering on fair. But I've seen quite a few nonsensical bits around starting to pop up about how the Habs are wasting their picks when they choose Russians (or former Soviet citizens at least).

I have to be frank, anyone who says we wasted a pick on Sergei Kostitsyn is more than mildly delusional. Sergei was picked 200th overall in the 7th round of the 2005 draft. Usually, one would be lucky to remember the name of a player like that. To have mined 108 NHL games out of that player in 4 seasons since the draft is remarkable.

Not only does this show me that the picks have not been wasted, it shows me that we need to keep drafting Russians (and Belarussians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Latvians, etc.). They simply offer more value for the pick.

People often wonder aloud how Detroit has managed to maintain their excellence over the past decade and they need not look any further than this same mentality they take into the draft. Whereas the Wings have been as dismal as the worst NHL clubs in picking up North American talent from well-scouted leagues, they have made a living out of taking chances where they know their chances will pay off. Fedorov, Konstantinov and Lidstrom made the first wave of the Wings dynasty tick. All looked like high risk picks to those that have neither the patience nor the whereabouts to develop a European talent into an NHL star. The fact that they have repeated the trick with Zetterberg, Franzen and Datsyuk only further proves the point.

Now that the Swedish scouting game has been blown wide open (see draft, 2009), Russia really represents the richest vein of talent at its most untapped. What's more, as more and more teams shy away from the hassle that a few long distance phone calls and maybe some disappointments after a long tease (instead of a retirement straight out of high school) good Russian talent is slipping further down the rounds. Witness the Canadiens taking the third Russian player in the draft this season at 109th overall. Now, even if he doesn't actually turn out to be the next Ovechkin, you could never convince me he won't be better than Nick Oliver taken 110th overall.

Best case scenarios

For the Habs there really are only two scenarios that work from here on with Sergei:

1) Gainey gets him to calm down long enough (months) to start excelling in the AHL, calls him up and then trades him for similar value

2) Gainey gets him to calm down long enough (days/weeks) to start playing in the AHL so the GM can save face, calls him up and he replaces the blank-firing youngsters we currently carry night-in, night-out on the roster with panache and attitude of his best vintage

I thoroughly hope that it ends up being one of these. As I indicate, both routes require a bit of work for Gainey, which we know is asking a lot in his holiday months of August to June...

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