Sergei Kostitsyn's Hamilton Ride


Robert L note: I get e-mails of all kinds from the site and occasionally I get asked the odd hockey questions. Generally a reader may simply be soliciting my opinion on something to do with the Habs involving a player and their status, points etc.

Recently a reader named Adam Mills wrote in wondering about what's going on with Sergei Kostitsyn in Hamilton. I began a reply, and perhaps it was just the mood, but it turned into a full blown post. Adam's concerns were about player development mainly, as it relates to what is going on with number 74, so I started typing and didn't stop for a good while.

Adam's question went like this:

Looking ahead as well as behind, what are we seeing from our young developing players and our newly brought up prospects? I read somewhere (I'm not much of a documentor) that Mathieu Carle had glowing things to say about his experience so far with Bouchard in Hamilton. This is great to hear. If Carle honestly means that, well then it speaks wonders for what's happening down there. If he didn't, then it still impresses the hell out me for it's intelligence and professionalism-- things that will not go amiss in Steeltown. I'm left with more questions of course. Is Sergei Kostitsyn a test for Boucher? Do you think both will pass? If it is a the test fair, smart, gutsy?

On the Sergei / Bulldogs / Guy Boucher front, I'm afraid I do not have much insight to offer on the particular case unfolding in Hamilton. What I can say, is that from my experiences coaching, I get a certain sense of what the Canadiens and perhaps Boucher are trying to achieve with Sergei Kostitsyn. In order to answer your questions, I can bring up a notion or two from my coaching past that might serve to shed some light on how the organization plans to proceed.

You can consider this pure conjecture on my part!

I think Sergei is an asset that needed to be better managed in the past than it has been. That's become obvious now, but it hasn't always been. He made the jump to the NHL quite swiftly, and sometimes it is only in retrospect do you learn that it has been rushed. While we fans are not privy to all the details and conversations, we can all speculate that his maturity is a big question mark at present. We've heard the stories and seen the attitude, and if we take the approach of ''where there's smoke, there's fire'', then the kid might be hard to deal with on many levels.

I get where you are thinking that Sergei just might be Boucher's hot potato - a scenario he didn't foresee being dropped on his lap, and one that could conspire to create a certain chaos on the Bulldogs team.

In the old days, the term "break a player" was often used regarding Habs' prospects. It refered to the manner in which the Canadiens groomed their hopefuls. For all the offensive talent a player owned, it would drilled into their heads that the team and defensive responsibility came first. An example was Yvan Cournoyer spending the majority of a season getting about 6 minutes a game. He basically only played on the PP until he learned to backcheck. Often, a young kid coming up would go out and score in his first games and then be benched immediately afterwards simply because he took a risk in his play. To the Canadiens (who had a luxury of talent and could do this then) it didn't matter that the player had scored, if he had put his individual goals ahead of those of the team, he got his knuckles rapped.

Cournoyer went through it. So did Lafleur, Pete Mahovlich, Shutt, Lemaire...the list goes on. Many others didn't make it because of the restraints and demands put on them. I remember players like Phil Roberto, Bobby Sheehan, Chuck Lefley and Chuck Arnason, all with loads of offensive flash but little defensive conscience. They didn't last long in Montreal. One kid, a high pick named Robin Sadler, is said to have walked out of his first camp two weeks in, deciding he never wanted to be an NHL player, because of the crunch down in breaking him from day one.

In Kostitsyn's case, it's about different types of discipline. In a different way, I think the Canadiens are trying to break Sergei, big time! People forget that before all the latest BS (the walkouts, partying speculation, the mob friend thing) the issue with Sergei was strictly on the ice. His selfishness and indiscipline in taking bad penalties and making bad decisions during games were a large concern. He wasn't the player last season that he had been in 2007-08. His focus had slipped. Each game seemed to bring about a personal vendetta with a rival, some dumb fight for no good reason. For Sergei those little battles often became his priority over team matters and you could just see that he needed reeling in or would get out of control.

So, in that sense, he is being humbled by some tough love at the moment. What is encourging, is that twice now, the Canadiens have not given in or given up on him. They have twice managed to convince him to return and by all reports he seems to finally be stepping in line. Comments by Hamilton teammates and coaching staff seem to suggest that Sergei has reintegrated himself well into the team scheme and is focused on helping the Bulldogs win first and foremost. That is the kind of thinking that will get him back to the bigs. Once he has managed to make himself the Bulldogs most consistent performer, he'll head back to Montreal in a heartbeat, because they can use him. As his contract runs out at season's end, it's in both his and the Canadiens interest in seeing this happen.

To answer your question on whether it is fair, smart or gutsy, for the Canadiens to proceed in this manner, I'd say it's all three at once. The Habs have let him know that nothing will be handed to him. Simply put, with this player, at this time, with this situation, what they are doing is the only way to go. If they were to fast track him right back to the NHL undeservedly, they could be going through this entire process again in a month or two. Sergei is going to earn his NHL playing time the hard way.

In regards to Guy Boucher in all this, I have to say that I have not had a chance to see the Bulldogs play to pass any kind of judgement on how he'll do as a coach. Based on what I am hearing and reading on Boucher, it seems he is a very demanding coach who leaves nothing to chance when it comes to preparing his players for games. I've read rave reviews in the french media and despite the obvious bias they have for homeboys, they are saying good things about him.

Is Sergei a test for Boucher?

I'd think so, but then again, everything is a test of sorts for everyone involved. Should Sergei return to Montreal with a better head on his shoulders, the credit will be all Boucher's. It's quite obvious that Boucher is being groomed as the next Canadiens coach. Three or four years in Hamilton should provide him with a foundation for making the jump. If the Bulldogs continue to be successful, he might even be in demand elsewhere. It seems that Boucher is very highly thought of in many circles and had several offers this past summer. The Canadiens won't want to lose this guy.

Prior to answering your questions, I tried for about an half hour to locate an article I had read on Boucher that described his game preparation in detail. While I failed to come up with it, the piece told that before each game he takes each player aside and goes over what is being asked of them on a game by game basis. What he is doing, is identifying areas of each player's game that needs improvement and focusing the players on their tasks in regards to that night's opponent.

This notion is an impressive one, as you can imagine the amount of work that goes into approaching player grooming this way. I like the method entirely. As an AHL coach, he is there not only to win, but groom prospects.

Long ago, when I coached minor kids, I received some very sage advice from a tutor one time. He told me, "Take the time to get to know your kids, their individual personalities, and how they react to different things. You can't treat them all exactly the same, because they are not all the same. Once you know them some, try to identify one aspect of each player that can be improved upon. Make it a collective goal between you and that player to work on this and improve it game by game. Point out when and where they are growing and continuously encourage them in that pursuit. If by year's end you have managed to improve every player in one little area, you will by addition have made your entire team much better."

The reason I never forgot this, was because it worked everytime. Each season, that was the approach I took. Kids would come off the ice..."Did I do that right, coach?" At the end of each season, I had 12 kids asking me to select them again next year. Our teams got better. Parents would let us all know.

The correlation between those ideas and Boucher's methods are simple when you look below the surface. The common thread is basically showing the player that you care and that he (his progress) is important to you. The player becomes encouraged by this.

Maybe Sergei is in a similar relationship now with Boucher. Time will tell, perhaps. It could be that Boucher is hands on with Sergei but treating it all with a certain caution.

In my experiences, I had a line that never offended a kid coming off the ice. I'd say, "I'm glad that you made that mistake that way, because now it allows me to point out that...."

When players finally do get it right, they see it in your eyes. That kind of satisfaction is very mutual, and doesn't even need words to be recognized, to be quite honest.

If Sergei is set upon making the sacrifices he needs to as a player, he'll be making those steps in complicity with Boucher's help.

But Hamilton is a competitive place. Everyone wants to get the call. Jealousy and favouratism could enter the picture. There's a danger in singling out a player. They only way to go is to preach the old "All For One" mantra.

A little trick I had that helped, dealt with the discrepancy in talent that one can have on a minor kids team. You have some very skilled guys, and some real beginners. So that there would be no favouratism, I had the better kids grow their games by becoming more aware of their teammates by helping to improve them as well.

"Why are you putting that shitty kid on my line"?

"Because I want you to help him score 10 goals."

The kids would see that the coach was not only challenging the lesser players, but more gifted ones as well. No one was excluded from improving himself. If you do it fairly, without making it personal, you'll get players helping each other out willingly. They'd cheer each other one. When the "shitty kid" scored or did good things, the gifted player that helped would be just as primed.

So in a roundabout way, it all comes down to nurturing talent and skill. The secret is, as you are doing this, you are making men out of boys one lesson at a time. By doing so, it makes the players accountable, to themselves, to the coach and to all teammates.

Now I'm talking 12 to 16 years olds, whereas Sergei is in his early twenties. Perhaps the approach is a whole lot more intense, especially with discrepancy between an AHL and NHL contract being involved.

Still though, the bottom line is all about nurturing talent inside a team concept.

Maybe Sergei believes that in the NHL he is destined to rack up 100 point seasons like he did in junior with London. Maybe this is where he gets the reality check that he is not the superstar that he thinks he is.

As I see it, the Habs are certainly trying to break him, break him of this notion that it is his individual skill that will take him to great heights.

The Canadiens, for their part, aren't concerned with pure numbers. They'd just like to Sergei improve, and get his name on a Stanley Cup.

There's no short cuts.

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