Monday, September 29, 2008

Breaking up is hard to do

I think there's little doubt that the Habs' first line starting this season will be Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn flanking Tomas Plekanec. The trio developed chemistry last year when the line's original centre, Mikhail Grabovski, proved he wasn't the right player for the position. Carbonneau plugged in Plekanec, and the line, except for the odd inevitable case of Carbo's mid-game tinkering, never looked back. Kovalev revitalized his career with his second-best offensive totals and Plekanec and Kostitsyn had breakout years with 29 and 26 goals respectively. They bumped the Saku Koivu line down the pecking order, and they were the three players called on to produce whenever the team really needed a goal.

So, it may seem a little crazy to suggest breaking up the line to start the year. Why mess with success, right? Even so, I think that's what should happen. The main reason I take that view is Andrei Kostitsyn, and the question of his development. The pundits and fans agree his very strong pre-season is a good sign that he's ready to better last year's totals with a monster year on the scoreboard. I think he's got a strong chance to do that. But I think it would be easier for him to develop into the dominant player we think he can be if he were playing his natural position.

Andrei Kostitsyn is a right winger, but to make room for Kovalev, he's been playing left wing on the Plekanec line. It's a testament to his talent that he's flourished on his off-wing. He's opportunistic and quick and he gets in there for the rebounds and redirections off his linemates' shots. He's powerful and has a great shot of his own too. But the truly great moments, the highlight-reel goals he's scored, the ones where he waltzes through an entire opposing team and makes you go Wow! have happened when he's playing right wing.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Imagine an entire season of Kostitsyn on the right side, pulling those kinds of moves with greater regularity. If the Habs were fun to watch last year, I think switching Andrei back to his proper position would make the team even more exciting.

Of course, switching Kostitsyn would mean the inevitable breakup of the first line as it now stands. AK46 and Plekanec have undeniable chemistry, which could continue even with Kovalev off the line. The left wing position could obviously be filled by Christopher Higgins, with whom the other two had some thrilling moments when they were combined in the last third of the 2006-07 season. That leaves finding a place for Kovalev. We know about his past chemistry with Robert Lang, which might be worth a new attempt, with Sergei Kostitsyn or Guillaume Latendresse on the other wing. And the Tanguay/Koivu/Kovalev combination also has intriguing potential, at least on paper. The beauty of this year's lineup is that there really isn't a bad-looking trio in any combination of the top nine forwards you might want to create. So, with more balanced offensive lines, it's a perfect opportunity to try moving some players around and give Kostitsyn a chance to explode in his natural position.

And hey, it's Carbonneau we're talking about. If it doesn't work out, you can be sure the lines will be switched back before you can say "Kostitsyn scores!" anyway.

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