Let's try a little experiment. First, get comfy in your chair. Now, clear your mind of all the discontent inspired by the Canadiens wretched season to date. Okay, if you're all set, think about Andrei Kostitsyn. Then, close your eyes and see what picture comes to mind. When I tried this, the first thing I saw was a goal he scored against Atlanta about three or four years ago, in which he grabbed the puck in his own end, powered around a couple of Thrashers in the neutral zone, cracked the defence like a nut and slipped a lovely backhand past the Thrashers' goalie. It was a spectacular individual effort for an extremely memorable goal.
It was also a goal that epitomized the problem between Habs fans and Kostitsyn. When the Canadiens chose him tenth overall in 2003, they were taking a pretty big chance. In a draft that featured such strong North American players as Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Zach Parise, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Ryan Kesler...just to name a few of the guys chosen after Kostitsyn...the Canadiens took a Belarussian kid with health concerns and no English. His talent, though, was without dispute.
What Trevor Timmins, in his first draft as Canadiens' head scout, failed to consider was Kostitsyn's ability, or inability, to use that talent consistently. As a result, when Kostitsyn scored goals like the one against Atlanta, fans were just as frustrated by the rarity of those highlight plays as they were thrilled to see them happen.
His draft position in that 2003 Super Draft, along with the hope spent on him because of the players the Canadiens didn't take, and his own tremendous ability, combined to create a set of high expectations to which Kostitsyn has rarely lived up. Because of that, a lot of people have labelled him a disappointment and wouldn't mind seeing him traded for picks or prospects at the deadline.
If you reset your image of him, however, and look at what he really is rather than what you expected him to be, you begin to realize his value. In each of the three NHL seasons in which he's played more than 60 games, he's scored at least 20 goals. He's on pace to do the same again this season. He's also a physically big presence on the ice and can deliver the kind of hits that make opposing defencemen move quickly to avoid him. He's not the superstar fans hoped he'd be, but he's not without worth. Far from it.
For $3.25-million a year, Kostitsyn's numbers are comparable to other players with similar numbers and consistency issues. Michael Ryder just signed for $3.5-million with Dallas. Ales Hemsky makes $4.1-million in Edmonton. Drew Stafford in Buffalo gets $4-million. All things considered, Kostitsyn could even be considered a bargain for what he brings.
Another plus for Kostitsyn is that now, as he's about to turn 27, he "gets it" at last. He has finally learned to drive the net hard when he can and to use his size to make room for himself and his linemates. He's got chemistry with Lars Eller that makes things happen. He was instrumental in Eller's epic four-goal game earlier this month, and he and Eller combined on the dirty work that resulted in Alexei Emelin's first NHL goal against Detroit. Kostitsyn is doing a lot of the little things that make a player, while not necessarily a star, a valuable contributor.
Whether it's because he's following the example of players like Erik Cole or (giving credit where it's due) taking ex-coach Jacques Martin's instruction to heart, Kostitsyn has found a way to help the Canadiens a lot more than he hurts them. It wasn't always that way, but it is now. It's even hard to remember the last dumbass penalty he took. In fact, the guy who used to regularly send Guy Carbonneau's blood pressure soaring with his ill-advised infractions has taken only five minors in 39 games this year to date.
All of this is to make the case for the Canadiens re-signing Kostitsyn. He's already come out and said he wants to stay in Montreal, and he's willing to take less than he might get on the open market to do so. (Or at least that's what he told Marc Antoine Godin of La Presse, who tweeted as much.) If Pierre Gauthier or his successor is committed to making the Canadiens a bigger, more aggressive team, it would be a shame to get rid of a guy who's fairly consistent in his goal scoring, is built like a tank and has learned to use his size. That he's home-grown and one of the longest-serving Habs is a nice bonus.
In the big picture, Kostitsyn isn't a distraction off the ice. He's learned to be more responsible on it. And he's not asking outrageous amounts of money to put up 20+ goals. There's also the devil-you-know factor. Gauthier or his successor could trade Kostitsyn for a pick or prospect at the deadline, or let him walk in the summer and use his money to sign someone else, but there's no guarantee that Kostitsyn's replacement would be better than the guy they let go.
Watching Kostitsyn this year has made a convert of this fan, who used to think he was the biggest liability on the team. He's earned himself an extension in Montreal through his improved style of play. Seeing him participating in conversations on the bench, and hearing his teammates talk teasingly about him reveals a little bit of how well he's become part of the fabric of the team. He deserves another two to three years on his contract for a modest raise.
Once, when I pictured Kostitsyn, he'd be standing at the top of the circle watching helplessly as his check escaped his coverage and scored. Or he'd be sitting in the penalty box after yet another o-zone trip, staring vacantly in front of him. It's a different picture now, one that the player has worked hard to create. It should be rewarded.