-- Shyness, nervousness and cautiousness -- those are the words Nashville Predators
general manager David Poile used to describe left wing Sergei Kostitsyn
when he arrived in training camp last year.
In a physical game that demands a different "ness" in order to succeed -- namely, aggressiveness -- that is not exactly the ideal way to start off with a new team.
The Predators had acquired Kostitsyn on June 29, 2010, for almost nothing, sending center Dustin Boyd
and goalie Dan Ellis
to Montreal. The Canadiens did not sign Ellis, a pending unrestricted free agent, and Boyd played 10 games for them, registering 1 goal and a minus-6 rating.
Perhaps the Canadiens expected Kostitsyn might post similar numbers to Boyd's in Nashville. Instead, Kostitsyn battled through a rocky training camp and first quarter of the season and finished as Nashville's top goal scorer, posting a career-high 23.
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"I think the longer that he's with us, the more he fits in, the more he feels comfortable, the better he plays," Poile said. "It's a remarkable difference from last year in the first three weeks of training camp to his first two weeks here. … He's come back in training camp [and] I'd say he's been one of our forwards since day at one."
Kostitsyn scored his first goal and fifth point of the season Monday in a 3-1 loss to Edmonton, the Predators' third straight, as Nashville has gone 2-2-1 through its first five. Since Saturday, Kostitsyn has skated on the team's top line with David Legwand
and Colin Wilson
, averaging 17:45 per game, which is second among the team's forwards. The expanded role marks a great contrast to his introduction to the Predators in the fall of 2010.
"It's much better because, you know, you feel much comfortable," Kostitsyn said. "You know every guy in this room, so it's much better than when I came last year. I didn't know anything and it was a tough camp, so it's much easier right now."
Considering Kostitsyn's first 19 games with the Predators last season, it's a wonder the organization stuck with him at all. But such is the patient way Poile and coach Barry Trotz
have developed players during their 13 seasons together since the franchise joined the League.
Kostitsyn posted two goals, one assist and a minus-eight rating through those first 19 games -- the kind of statistics that could get a Habs player booed out of the Bell Centre and sent packing to Hamilton. In nine of those games, Kostitsyn's time on ice was less than 10 minutes. He was minus-3 in 9:03 on Nov. 26 against Minnesota and then played just 4:22 the next night against the New York Rangers
, hitting something close to rock bottom.
Then his play began to turn around. This season, the Predators are working with right wing Niclas Bergfors
in the hope that he can be the same kind of reclamation project that Kostitsyn was last season.
"I think he's a little bit like Sergei," Trotz said last week of Bergfors, initiating the comparison himself. "I think he had an OK camp, but it's just like last year, Sergei took a while to get used to how we play and I think Bergie had to catch up a little bit there."
Playing the way the Predators play means taking care of your own end first. Being a minus player doesn't cut it, even for a forward. After that horrific start, Kostitsyn finished plus-10, a turnaround of plus-18 in his final 58 games.
Kostitsyn downplayed the learning process, saying the adjustment was "not really" that difficult for him.
"I kind of know how to play on defense," he said. "It takes a couple of games to get used to new system and everything, so …"
Kostitsyn's brief tenure in Nashville represents something of a resurrection of his career following his three seasons in Montreal, the organization that selected him in the seventh round of the 2005 Entry Draft. Playing on the same team as his older, higher-profile brother Andrei (a former first-round pick and three-time 20-goal scorer), Sergei enjoyed success as a rookie in 2007-08 with nine goals and 18 points in 52 games.
However, during the next two seasons he spent some time in the American Hockey League and never produced at the same rate. During the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kostitsyn, benched at times for his play, appeared in only five of 19 games during the Habs' electrifying run to the Eastern Conference Finals. As a result, the organization soured on him and parted with him for a relative pittance.
Along with diminishing production on the ice, Kostitsyn's name made headlines for the wrong reasons off it. He and Andrei were among a few Canadiens who were the subject of stories for socializing with an organized crime figure. The NHL investigated and cleared the brothers of any wrongdoing.
All of which led to Kostitsyn to say of playing in Montreal, "It's good for one (reason) and it's bad for another. You cannot go anywhere. Everybody knows you, everybody sees you. I mean, I don't mind (if) people recognize you, but sometimes it's too much. You can't even eat."
Left Wing - NSH
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 5
SOG: 6 | +/-: -1
Players know this. It's why a Montreal native like Vincent Lecavalier
is content to remain in Tampa Bay. Often times, nontraditional markets offer players an inviting lifestyle, especially anonymity. Kostitsyn, 24, seems to have found a home with the League's youngest team, whose average player age is 26.
"I don't know whether last year there were too many people who knew who Sergei was," Poile said of the change that occurred once Kostitsyn landed in Nashville. "Was that a good thing? Maybe in this case it was. It could have helped maybe to fit in, feel less of a challenge, less pressure. It seemed to work for him and for all of our players. I think if you ask any of our players, I think they're pretty happy living in Nashville."
Nonetheless, players always face pressure. Kostitsyn went from earning $50,000 more than the NHL minimum salary last season to $2.5 million this season. He will be a restricted free agent at season's end.
Poile chuckled when he was asked if Kostitsyn might regress in terms of production, as the Preds' Patric Hornqvist
did last season when his 21 goals fell from 30 the previous season.
"I think we all know there's a chance," Poile said. "What you're hoping for with young players -- whether it be Hornqvist or Kostitsyn, because it's probably a good comparison in that they're finding their confidence, or starting to realize their potential -- so I'm looking for him to have as good if not better year this year."
That goal for Kostitsyn on Monday was a long time coming, especially since he went 12 playoff games last season without one. Nonetheless, the Preds seem to be happy with him. Even his current minus-1 isn't bad considering the Predators' goal differential is minus-3 and they surrendered five even-strength goals in a 5-2 home-opening loss to Phoenix.
"Oh, I would love to score more than (last season)," Kostitsyn said of his prospects for 2011-12. "It means I'd help the team a lot. I'd love to score more, that's for sure."