Rooting Against the Underdog
One of the more positive stories in Leafland a week ago was Mike Kostka earning a spot on the Leafs blue line coming out of camp. The 27-year-old career AHLer made his NHL debut in Montreal and was able to pick up his first point. He didn’t look horribly out of place against a horrible team. It also probably didn’t hurt to have a guy who has been playing all season, eating 20 minutes a night, in the first couple of shakedown games.
Kostka certainly seemed like a reliable option that would slowly slide down the depth chart as Carlyle had a better chance to assess his regulars. To date (albeit it’s been five games) that hasn’t happened. Kostka played 22:59 minutes against Montreal, and that ice time has climbed up to over 31 minutes against New York on Saturday night (he was also minus -4). He’s currently 10th in the league in Average Time on Ice per game, ahead of recent Norris Trophy winners Zdeno Chara and Erik Karlsson.
Presently, Kostka also is the top four of defenseman for shorthanded icetime and has also been been placed on the top powerplay unit. Presumably Kostka knows exactly how Carlyle takes his coffee, or has some damned incriminating photos of Randy, because there hasn’t been anything in Kostka’s career that justifies this kind of promotion.
From a useless stat point of view, Kostka fares pretty horribly. He’s second worst in the league for +/- at minus 7 (only behind Phaneuf), and third worst in the league for giveaways with six.
If you want to look at more relevant information, you’ll see that Phaneuf and Kostka have the worst on ice save percentages at even strength, and Kostka has the worst Offensive Zone Finish % on the Leafs (also good for 9th worst in the league.)
Are the Leafs so desperate to believe they have found the next Jason Garrison that they’re ready to thrust him into top pairing minutes? Is this not a cheaper version of the Jeff Finger signing or almost identical to what the Oilers experienced with Corey Potter? Phaneuf has already been asked to carry a load that is a little too heavy for him, but to then pair him with a minor leaguer seems cruel. As Cam Charron covers in his article on The Leafs Nation, the Toronto media is already lazily setting its sights on Dion as a buyout candidate because of this.
Is it fair to say that Kostka doesn’t have value at the NHL level? No. Given the Leafs current defense, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why he couldn’t be platooning in and out of the sixth spot on the blue line depending on what the need is that night. Franson is the more talented right-handed shot who could ultimately support Dion, or ideally reunite Phaneuf with Gunnarsson if Carlyle really wants a pairing to play thirty minutes a night. Kostka seems more like a Marc-Andre Bergeron/Anton Babchuk type option. Throw him in your bottom pair if you want that extra second unit powerplay quarterback, or put him with someone you don’t trust moving the puck on the left side (Fraser comes to mind).
It seems that Fraser and Kostka should be trading off spots until Gardiner is ready to return to the NHL. Fraser gets the punching bag nights, and Kostka gets the nights when a decent third line pairing is in order.
It may only have been a week, but it seems that the Leafs blue line is still the biggest question mark on the team. While I’m not ready to anoint Reimer the current and future starting goaltender for the Leafs, I still remain curious about how good a goaltender he could be with a strong defense in front of him.
Monday Morning Links…
Should the Leafs Buyout Dion Phaneuf
If you answered with anything other than “HELLS NO” please give your head a shake. Finding a true top pairing partner for him needs to be a priority.
Tiger vs. The Rangers
Vintage Leafs has some new photos up, go check them out.
Asking Some Tough but Fair Questions About the Maple Leafs
Some interesting questions over at VLM. I haven’t completely thought out my answers yet, but am one of the few people that honestly believes that Phaneuf is a capable leader.
Top Five Leafs Concerns
Grit, sandpaper, and leadership didn’t make the list. I think the way the team is diagnosed is at least improving.