A year ago, Sergei Kostitsyn arrived in Nashville for the start of training camp looking for a fresh start. After a turbulent three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, the enigmatic winger welcomed the change of scenery as an escape from the 24/7 attention one receives as a player for the bleu, blanc, et rouge.
In his time with the Habs, Kostitsyn battled with Head Coach Jacques Martin and twice refused to report to the team’s minor league club in Hamilton when he was assigned there in the 2009-10 season.
Predators President of Hockey Operations and General Manager David Poile acquired Kostitsyn in a low-risk deal when he sent the rights to Dan Ellis and Dustin Boyd to Montreal. Soon thereafter, Poile inked Kostitsyn to a one-year, $550,000 contract.
The start to Kostitsyn’s time as a Predator was anything but smooth. He wasn’t in the kind of shape the team wanted, and he sustained a broken toe early in training camp thanks to a slap shot off the stick of Cody Franson. That injury, combined with his slow to adjustment to Head Coach Barry Trotz’ system, nearly cost Kostitsyn a spot on the roster at the start of last season.
Though he made the team, Kostitsyn did not play much in the first two months of the season and was a healthy scratch in an early November game in Anaheim. At the time, Trotz’ only explanation for the benching was, “It’s between me and Sergei.”
As the calendar turned to December, Kostitsyn became acclimated to the Predator way of doing things and was rewarded for it when he was placed on a line with Marcel Goc and Martin Erat, where his European brethren jump-started the Belarusian’s transformation into a go-to player for Trotz.
“He had a little bit of tough buy-in to the way we played,” Trotz said. “Once he came around, then you saw him blossom.”
For the season, Kostitsyn had 23 goals and 27 assists in 77 games played. In setting career highs in goals, assists, points, and games played, Kostitsyn also led the Predators in goals and tied Erat for the team lead in points.
Kostitsyn was a disappointment in the playoffs though, posting no goals and just five assists in 12 postseason games.
Despite the goalless playoff performance, Kostitsyn earned a healthy raise as evidenced by the one-year, $2.5 million contract he signed this offseason.
While expectations were low last season, this year is a different story.
Kostitsyn hopes that a fast start to the season is in the offing.
“I hope to get a really nice start, not only me, but the whole team off to a good start,” he said. “We have to get a good start to our season.”
Having ten intack toes will help him in his quest for that fast start.
“Franny is not here, so no one is going to break my toe,” Kostitsyn said with a laugh following Saturday’s on-ice practice at Centennial Sportsplex.
Franson was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the offseason.
Building on a successful 2010-11 campaign is one of Kostitsyn’s goals.
“Every player tries to be better than the season before,” he said. “That’s what I am going to try and do.”
Trotz noticed a difference in Kostitsyn’s physical appearance at the start of this training camp.
“He looks really good, his fitness level is 100 times better than what it was last year,” Trotz said. “His fitness level wasn’t very good last year.”
In addition to the physical difference he sees in Kostitsyn, Trotz noticed an emotional one as well.
“His confidence level — you could see is really good,” Trotz said. “I’m really excited about Sergei. I really am. I think he is enjoying his role with our team and what he might be able to do.”
One area Trotz hopes to see the increased confidence manifest itself will be when Kostitsyn has the puck in the offensive zone with a scoring opportunity. Last season, Kostitsyn took just 93 shots en route to scoring his 23 goals. His 24.7 shooting percentage was the highest in the NHL.
“He has a really good shot,” Trotz said. “It’s repeating ‘don’t pass up those shots.’”
The coaching staff has a plan in place for Kostitsyn to be a little more selfish this season.
“One of the ways we’re going to talk about is him shooting off the half wall a lot more on the power play and not looking to pass all the time,” Trotz said. “That’s part of being a threat and opening people. He can be that threat once in a while. Once they’ve taken all his options away, he can shoot the puck a little bit more. It’s one step at a time. I can’t prod him with one of those cattle prods. It’s just repetition and him seeing it.”