It's a good thing Andrei Kostitsyn can't speak English very well. It appears that, when given time, a willing reporter's ear and the chance to vent in his own language, he took the opportunity to tell said reporter all about how Jacques Martin doesn't like him, doesn't listen to him and didn't explain why Kostitsyn bounced around the lineup all last season.
Now, while it's fairly certain Kostitsyn isn't the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, he might have a point with his complaints. Surely Martin had bigger issues with which to deal last season than Kostitsyn's concerns. He had, for example, a D-corps decimated by season-ending injury and a top-six centreman who was missing in action for the majority of the year. So, perhaps, the Belarussian whose most erudite English phrase is "shoot puck, score goals" was at a disadvantage when trying to understand what his coach wanted of him. Maybe he felt a little left out, let down and just plain baffled. That he chose to express those sentiments publicly wasn't the wisest course of action, considering the Canadiens brass's antipathy to even the slightest whiff of trouble in the dressing room.
The problem facing Canadiens management now is whether Kostitsyn is worth soothing. That Pierre Gauthier was content to sign him for one year, ending in unrestricted free agency, is an indication of the organazation's uncertainty about Kostitsyn's long-term value. Signing Erik Cole for four years also underlines AK's precarious position as a top-six winger in Montreal.
The thing is, Kostitsyn is a good player. Perhaps he's not a consistent top-six guy all the time, but he's got definite skills. He's a tank on skates, and one of the few Canadiens forwards who hits with authority. He's also got a wicked wrister and he's good for twenty goals even in an off year. And, while he might have voiced his displeasure with the coach, his teammates seem to like him. Post-game kudos for and teasing of "Kush" were common last year.
The former tenth-overall draft pick is probably never going to be the 35-40 goal scorer the team was hoping for eight years ago. That doesn't mean 20-plus goals are worthless. Natural goal scorers aren't a dime a dozen out there, and Kostitsyn started last season very well on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. It appeared he might finally be having the breakout season about which fans had dreamed. That all screeched to a halt when, in an attempt to jump-start Scott Gomez, Martin yanked Kostitsyn off the Plekanec line. Gomez and Kostitsyn had as much chemistry as a beagle and a duck-billed platypus and Kostitsyn's numbers went south.
Looking at last year objectively, an argument can be made that Kostitsyn's inconsistency, this time around, wasn't all his fault. And maybe the year before, the aftereffects of the concussion he sustained at the hands of Kurt Sauer might have played a role. If management is willing to take those mitigating factors into consideration and overlook complaints probably made out of frustration, Martin will have to really try with Kostitsyn. He has an asset that can help the team if he can find the key to working with the player. That is, after all, the heart of his role as coach.
Maybe nothing will make a difference and Kostitsyn will have another inconsistent year with long cold stretches during which he looks like he was introduced to hockey last week. Maybe he'll go quietly to another team at some point during the season, after Gauthier has time to let the whiff of potential discontent die away and he can get a decent return for him.
Then again, if Martin really tries to connect with a young player who's got obvious communication problems to go along with his hockey skill, there's a chance the two can clear the air and the Canadiens can get the best out of a player for whom they had great hopes. And it's not just about Kostitsyn in the big picture. With young Russians like Alexei Emelin, Alexander Avtsin and, someday, Maxim Trunev, in the pipeline, the Canadiens need a coach who can get through to them.
The worst possible thing that could happen is for Gauthier to get frustrated with the situation and dump Kostitsyn right away. Memories of the Ribeiro-for-Niinimaa trade should make that choice an obvious no-go.
Andrei Kostitsyn offers the Canadiens the kind of depth they haven't had in years. He can play on the third line with Lars Eller or David Desharnais, and he can play on the first with Tomas Plekanec. Either way, he gives them a legimate top-nine scoring forwards, which is a hallmark of any contender. Considering how unlikely it would be to replace his sure-thing 20 goals via trade early in the year, it's worth it to the team to try to work it out with Kostitsyn, at least for now.
Thanks to a Russian journalist and Twitter, we know what Andrei Kostitsyn was really thinking when he muttered, "work hard, shoot puck, score goals." Now it's up to Pierre Gauthier and Jacques Martin to work with him and draw out his ability to help the team. After all, not every player is a Brian Gionta or Tomas Plekanec. Sometimes, a little communication...in one language or another...can go a long way.