Over the past several weeks I have used this space to explore my imagination, concocting dream scenarios in which real hockey players do battle in the fantasy realm. The experience has been both wonderful and enlightening but there is potential for so much more. The fact is that NHL players actually do go to battle against each other all the time. Maybe not in a cage, but the conflict is real. I’m not talking about the battle that teams go through each time they square off against one another. I’m talking about the battle that players go through each and every day all season long, fighting for ice time against their own teammates. This week we take Cage Match on the road (figuratively) to preview a battle that will take place this fall (literally) between Andrei Kostitsyn and Max Pacioretty for the final top six spot on the Montreal Canadiens. Now the results of this battle won’t have major ramifications on your pool but since only one of these two can have fantasy relevance the ramifications must be seriously considered.


This battle is not a fight for a roster spot like many training camp battles can be. Both Kostitsyn and Pacioretty are bonafide NHL talents with nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. This battle is instead a battle for placement on the team’s depth chart. With the signing of Erik Cole the Habs are left with only one open roster spot in the top six as Cole, Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are all paid far too much to be bumped down in the lineup.


With those players already set to play in the top six, chemistry could easily become the deciding factor in this Cage Match. Forget who the better player is for now. Consider instead the possible line combinations in Montreal. There are two main pairings etched in stone right now. Cammalleri-Plekanec and Gionta-Gomez. That means the key to scoring the last top six spot will come down to etching out chemistry with whichever pairing Cole doesn’t line up with.


My assumption is that Cole will likely skate with Cammalleri and Plekanec. The Habs have yet to find a proper line-mate for those two so trying out the new guy in that spot makes the most sense. That would leave the door wide open for Pacioretty to score the last top six spot having shown tremendous chemistry with Gionta and Gomez during his time with the Habs last season.


Kostitsyn, on the other hand, made his way through the Habs lineup like a kid in a bouncy castle. (Yes there was vomit.) Kostitsyn needs Cole to struggle fitting in with Cammalleri-Plekanec to have any hope of surviving. Kostitsyn has shown, in brief stints, that he has some chemistry with Cammalleri and Plekanec so he would no doubt have an inside track if Cole was placed on the Gomez line.


Pacioretty’s prior chemistry with Gionta and Gomez will surely give him a leg up going into training camp and he may need it. You cannot talk Max Pacioretty without first discussing his horrific injury at the hands of Zdeno Chara. Forget all the controversy, that’s old news. Just consider the injury itself. Pacioretty suffered a broken neck and a severe concussion. These are both injuries with severe long term ramifications. Pacioretty’s life, let alone his career, was in jeopardy as a result of his injuries. It sounds as though he will be good to go to for the start of training camp but you cannot help but be sceptical. It is crucial that Pacioretty not only be up to full strength physically, but he must also be ready to compete mentally. It would be easy for Pacioretty to develop a fear on the ice. He cannot afford to play timidly as his size and physicality are essential to his place on the Canadiens vertically challenged roster. What sets Pacioretty apart from Kostitsyn the most is his willingness to go to the dirty areas. If he loses that edge he will lose the battle outright as he cannot match Kostitsyn on skill alone.


Chemistry will not be the only factor deciding this Cage Match. It is entirely possible that neither Kostitsyn or Pacioretty distinguishes themselves from the other. That would create a Harry Potter/Voldemort type scenario where neither can live while the other one survives. In this scenario Habs coach Jacques Martin would likely juggle the lineup such that that they end up splitting minutes. This is not unthinkable as both players averaged nearly the identical minutes on the power play and overall last season.


It is also possible that Cole winds up getting hurt resulting in both players playing in the top six. This would be more of a Potter/Malfoy type scenario where both live despite and irrespective of each other. In either of these latter scenarios we must look at the actual talents of each player to decide the winner.


Both Pacioretty and Kostitsyn are former first rounders so there is no real advantage regarding draft pedigree. Pacioretty is, however, three years younger than Kostitsyn so he has time on his side, especially when one considers that Pacioretty has yet to complete a full NHL season while Kostitsyn now has four full seasons under his belt. Pacioretty and Kostitsyn share very similar upsides but given the difference in their age and experience levels you have to prefer Pacioretty’s odds of reaching that upside.


In an ideal scenario either Pacioretty or Kostitsyn could score 30 goals and 70 points with similar Plus/Minus, SOG and PPP totals. I would however favour Pacioretty in the PIM department. He has proven, throughout his career, at every level that he can produce PIM at a rate of more than one per game. Kostitsyn, on the other hand, has toned down his PIM production at the NHL level. Once again Pacioretty has an advantage but that is on PIM upside alone.


Upside is not everything though. It is all well and good to appreciate the power and potential of youth but Kostitsyn is a proven commodity at the NHL level and has puck skills that Pacioretty cannot match. Kostitsyn is a three time 20-goal-scorer with a career average of over half a point per game. This will not cause anyone’s jaw to drop but it is consistent production that you simply cannot count on Pacioretty providing.


Ultimately, Pacioretty provides more risk because of his injuries and lack of NHL experience but he is the better bet both short term and long term. This is because he has better odds of securing a top six spot in the short term and of reaching his upside in the long term. I am not confident giving Pacioretty the knockout win in this one because he could literally knock himself out of the match but consider the victory a very decisive one none the less. I hope you are as excited as I am to see this one play out.

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Chewd said:

Kostitsyn's production Steve,
I found it funny when you described Kostitsyn's production as "consistent" since he's one of the more streaky players in the league. I'm not disagreeing since his annual totals are consistently at 0.55 ppg but on a weekly or monthly basis it's a completely different story - "consistently inconsistent".

July 28, 2011
Votes: +2

habs83 said:

re: RCF There is no way that the Habs trade either of them, regardless of who plays in the top 6. First, the player who doesn't start the year on one of the first two lines will eventually have a chance to do mso in the season due to injury or a slump from one of the top 6 players. Second, the Habs are a playoffs team, and they aim for home ice advantage. Since AK46 is signed to a one year contract before becoming an UFA, he is the typical rental player that could fetch a return like a prospect or a pick. That mean that a trade would not make the team better in the short term. Unless the Habs have an horrible start and fall out of contention vry early in the season, I don't see that happening. AK46 will play the entire season in Montreal, bu the Canadiens will probably lose him for nothing at the end of the season. Maybe not the best asset management, but that is the situation rignt now. As for Pacioretty, he he's still a top prospect, so he'll stick in Montreal for years to come, even if he has to start the year on the third line.

That said, the value of AK46 might be higher on another team, but I doubt it. He has been given every chance to succeed in Montreal, regularly playing on th top line and getting PP time. He has all the talent in the world, but his intensity is inconsistent and his hockey IQ is below average. You will have to set your expectations for what he is, which is a 50-60 pts player with lengthy hot and cold streaks.

Hope it helps
July 27, 2011
Votes: +1

RCF said:

Most value away from MTL? If there is a loser in MTL between the 2 of them, would you see that as a big trade possibility?
My feeling on that is that if it's AK74 that loses the match, he could get traded, and Max on the other would be kept as his future value should (as he is younger) not be affected.

I have AK74 in a keeper pool, and I'm not sure if the future value of AK74 is really going to be affected in either cases.
I have a feeling that he could be an easy top 6 in a lot of teams, and that his current value in MTL is actualy lower than his ''real'' value.

What do you think? Could MTL afford to keep AK74 even if he loses the top 6 spot?
July 27, 2011 | url
Votes: -4

habs83 said:

... The only question mark is the health of Eller who could be back for the first game of the season or only be able to play in november. In his absence, Desharnais can fill the void as the 3rd line center before switching to the wing when Eller comes back. He played on the wing in the playoffs and looked pretty good.
July 27, 2011
Votes: +2

eribelan said:

re: habs83 I'm sure than Eller and Kostityn are pretty set for the beginning of the season.

Your comment was accurate and sized the situation perfectly.
July 27, 2011
Votes: +3

habs83 said:

... Very good article and arguments. I agree with every thing you wrote except one...that the loser of thhis cage match would not hold any fantasy relevance. I also think that AK46 will start the year on the 3rd line, but I also think that this 3rd line will surprise a lot of people. Last season, AK46 had some of his best games when he played with Lars Eller. The other winger on that line was the supremely talented (!) Travis Moen. Replace Moen by Desharnais, and you get yourself a pretty decent 3rd line. The main match-up will be for PP time. Late in the season last year, Desharnais was getting more and more PP time, and prior to his injury, Pacioretty was a goal scoring machine on the PP. That is what will hurt AK46 production, but I believe he will still get 20 goals - 50 pts.
July 27, 2011
Votes: +5
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