Mike Kostka: The undrafted 27-year-old rookie defenceman who went from little-known AHL journeyman to, for a while anyway, first pairing defenceman in the spotlight of the hockey universe, soon becoming a lightning rod of criticism amid Randy Carlyle’s perceived poor roster decisions.
In the interest of fairness and context, let’s take this story back to the beginning of the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Coach Carlyle had to be creative in the early going – if not all season – in trying to assemble a steady top four group of defencemen. Recall that Jake Gardiner was not himself at season’s beginning, still recovering from a concussion suffered with the Marlies. Gards did not play in the season opener and came back to play only two games (17 and 20 minutes respectively) before being sent to the Marlies (until March) to rediscover his game shape, timing and confidence. Gardiner was a defenceman who, given the promise of his rookie season and the seeming ease with which he skated the second most minutes per game on the team the year prior, many of us were banking on to shoulder a heavy workload.
Gardiner’s ineligibility was a factor, but we also knew Gunnarsson had acquitted himself decently well beside Phaneuf the season prior. There was lots of talk at the time about Carlyle’s preference for matching handedness with the left/right side of each defence pair, and how that might explain Kostka’s time beside Phaneuf to start the season. Remember, however, that Gunnarsson was also not 100% since training camp, having returned from Sweden after the lockout with a nagging groin issue. After playing the first 7 games of the season, the injury sidelined Gunnarsson for 19 days in February.
With an already shallow defence suffering injuries to two of its top four defencemen, Carlyle’s idea was to ride Kostka, who had been one of the AHL’s best defencemen in the first half of the season prior to the lockout ending, for as long as he could while the Etobicoke native had the leg up on the competition in terms of game readiness. In a 2-1 stretch to open the season, Kostka put up three points, all powerplay assists, while averaging 24 and a half minutes of ice time. Regardless of his impending return to earth, it was impressive how the 27-year-old rookie handled himself when thrust into the spotlight on the top pairing in the very early going.
Evidence of Kostka being out of his depth in that role didn’t take long to rear its ugly head, however. In a pair of 7-4 and 5-2 losses to the New York Islanders and Rangers respectively, Kostka was on the ice for 7 of the 12 goals against while defending against the likes of John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Kostka played a shocking 31 minutes and 33 seconds in the Ranger game; his pairing (alongside Phaneuf) was scored on four times. And while he mustered a little powerplay production in the very early going, it became a growing and increasingly frustrating mystery as to why Kostka continued to receive first unit powerplay time for the first month of the season despite his simple game, average mobility and a rarely-used point shot.
The Kostka that settled into a more manageable role, after the failed Korbinian Holzer experiment and Gunarsson’s eventual promotion back to the first pairing in March, became a far more likeable one, to me at least. When left to play within his limitations – to win his one-on-one battles and make a steady first pass – Kostka’s presence was far more palatable. With Gardiner coming back into the mix, the Fraser and Franson pairing gaining more and more trust from the coach and Gunnarsson reassuming his role beside Phaneuf, Kostka eventually served spot duty in and out of the lineup from mid March onwards, which is the role he would’ve and should’ve served for the team from the get go if the circumstances surrounding the blueline were closer to ideal.
The last bit of controversy involving Mike Kostka was his inclusion in the lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs over Jake Gardiner, who watched the loss from the press box. After finally being “freed” from the Marlies, Gardiner struggled down the stretch by Carlyle’s standards (as well as mine – didn’t like his, forgive the cliche, “compete level” defensively). Gardiner hadn’t played in the final few games of the season while Kostka did and looked OK, so Carlyle was likely hesitant to make the change prior to the onset of playoff action. Carlyle might also have been recalling a game in Boston in late March, where Gardiner got ran over a few times and lost a key board battle leading to the tying goal in an eventual shootout loss at TD Garden. In any event, while no one looked good for the Leafs in their game 1 drubbing, Kostka was totally overwhelmed by the Bruin forecheck, turning the puck over multiple times. It was a mistake in a poorly coached game by Carlyle, by his own admission. To RC’s credit, I thought he adapted well and went on to outcoach Claude Julien for much of the series.
We also later found out that Kostka badly broke his finger in the early goings of Game 1 and, with Franson already banged up having taken a shot to the foot, he only stayed in the game because the coach needed the warm body to send over the boards on defence. The following picture was passed along by a friend who saw Kostka in a Shoppers Drugmart a couple of weeks later… In addition to his busted finger, he seemed to be playing with a messed-up foot:
It’s always difficult to evaluate, and in this case grade, a player who was placed into a role that simply asked too much. You do have to keep in mind, though, that Kostka was a cheap UFA pickup from whom we expected very little and who played some big minutes in a bind while giving the Leafs blueline depth options.
Would I bring Kostka, a pending unrestricted free agent, back next season? No slight to Kostka, but only if Dave Nonis fails to add to the defence in any meaningful way, necessitating his return as a depth option. Hopefully that won’t be the case.
Play of the Year:
Be sure to give Kostka an extra half point for fighting Captain Doucheface:
RATE THIS PLAYER: Out of 10, rate Mike Kostka’s season relative to his role and the expectations for the player entering the season. Be sure to back it up.
Hearing a great deal of the Leafs and Tampa making a deal that would land the Buds Vinny (*to be bought out) and the 3rd overall pick. In return 2 "mid-level players and a collection of draft picks to the Bolts.
Jim D here from Wisconsin. I glanced at this article and if I missed the point of it I apologize. I just wanted to say, I noticed today two articles one on top of the other. The first on Kostka, the other on Komarov. I have to say the most refreshing thing for me on this entire season was that the Leafs...led by Carlyle held a meaningful, albeit short training camp leading up to the season and these two players benefited. I have paid attention to a lot of camps and frequently hear about this player or that player impressing in practice and exhibition games, but ultimately, despite turning heads they head back to junior or the Marlies or whatever, because, well, that's where they belong. I love the fact that a player who maybe wasn't excpected to wear the jersey, was given the opportunity, based on his performance -- whether it was at the camp, or the AHL or whatever. That is what has made me respect Carlyle as a coach and I hope this is a practice that continues. It's what these camps are all about if you ask me...that's my two cents.
I wasn't able to watch the entire overtime, but every time I tuned in Crawford was making a great save. That or Bolland was saving a goal.
Just seems to snowball.. Get more and more exhausted, no one wants to make the mistake.. Go like 5+ mins without a scoring chance. Just need a flukey deflection.
And there we go.
SovSport reports Komarov refused to confirm signing w/Dynamo. 'I don't know if I'm gonna come over. I can't talk about it'
@ProfessorRance for cheap too
Agree - Horton would complete the two top lines on the wings.
Still need another center to completment Kadri.
If Streit can get 4 years at 5.5 million then Liles suddenly has a lot of value at 3.875.
@canuckintheuk To be fair, this was game 1, if it was game 7 of the finals it would be the worst collapse in playoff history regardless of the team. It's still pretty bad though, they had a chance to beat Chicago in their own barn.
But he skates so well. Nobody circles the net (without the puck, doing nothing in particular) like Seguin
@leafslunch Seguin is elite, have you not been listening for the last 3 years?
@mcloki Good night folks
@mcloki His hands and legs are gone.
@Anthony Petrielli The fastest players seem so much faster now. Really seems to become apparent when everyone is on fumes.
@Cameron19 night, hope its worth it b/c im gonna watch
@DeclanK We were talking about that earlier today a bit. It would be awesome if he stayed, as long as he doesn't get a crazy-high salary.
I still want McClement and Komarov to be two-thirds of our 4th line. Then either sign a UFA like Boyd Gordon, or just use a Marlie like D'Amigo to fill in the third spot.
@Cameron19Can the Flyers and another team looking to buy out a player swap Briere for that player and then both teams use buyouts on the acquired player, with each re-signing with his "former" team as a free agent at a lower cap figure?
@mcloki Looks like it's me and you
@DeclanK @Cameron19 I don't think that really effects the DiPietro situation. I believe the league would see the Leafs exchanging assets for buyout money with the Isles as a true form of revenue sharing, Both teams gain assets that will help them.
This does mean that the Lecavalier situation would be murky if he wanted to return to the Lightning after being bought out by us. Like he says though, there's nothing explicitly prohibiting anything. I don't know what the league could realistically do about it, even if they disagreed.
@Cameron19 A: "It won't happen, so forget about it. There is nothing explicitly prohibiting this, but NHL clubs have already been warned by the League not to even think about circumventing the rules or the case will be investigated by the league (and almost definitely result in punitive sanctions). A "trade" of this nature would blatantly violate the intent both of the buyout rules and the salary cap. It would be indefensible as anything but an end-around on the rules. "
@Alec Brownscombe True, loved the hit though. Got him right after he crosschecked the Hawk in the corner.
@mcloki I love this though
@DeclanK @Cameron19 They don't really have any grounds to. The purpose of the buyouts was to give teams who signed deals that would be heavily punished by the new cap benefit recapture formula, a chance to get out of dodge. It was a retro-active punishment for being stupid with the long-term deals in the last CBA. Whether they're punished by giving up good assets or boat-loads of money - why should the NHL care?