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Mike Kostka

Mike Kostka

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.


Just a little over 24 hours since the Game 7 letdown, it’s become clear to me I am way too emotionally involved with a damn hockey team; so much so that I start to wonder about myself for being this brutally devastated over a game. But I want to say that Leafs Nation is a special, special thing. I enjoy the fans of this team almost as much as I enjoy the team itself. That’s a weird statement to make, but for those that don’t live here or haven’t experienced playoffs in Toronto, it’s a beautiful, crazy thing. Just as the weather seems to turn a corner, sun dresses are dawned, beers consumed on patios, car stereos are cranked a little louder (mandatory windows down) and Leaf flags start appearing everywhere you look.


It’s official. The Leafs will face the Bruins in round one.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for the Habs on Tuesday. As much as the last four games against the Habs have been a mixed bag, the Leafs have been able to play their game and play to their strengths against Montreal. The Leafs have played the Bs much more competitively this season, but the Bruins have still been effective at negating the Leafs speed and skill up front, slowing them down and forcing them to grind for every goal. While the Bruins have backed into the playoffs, their forecheck is still top notch. For a Leafs team that struggles to diffuse a forecheck with efficient breakouts, that’s a scary prospect. The Bruins have experience, the core of a past Stanley Cup winner and play a tough playoff brand of hockey.


As the Toronto Maple Leafs skip along to their first playoff berth in eight seasons, Dion Phaneuf’s play is forcing his name to be included in discussion for the Norris Trophy.  The Norris is awarded annually to “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position,” and that sure sounds like the play of the Leaf captain this season.

He plays a physical, two-way brand of hockey and sits fifth-best in league for defensemen scoring with eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points in 42 games.  He’s a leader on the ice, the best defender on the team by a mile and has joined forces with Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James Reimer to drag the Leafs into contention.

But how does his performance this season stack up against performances past, and what greater truths can we find about the anatomy of a Norris Nominee?


A Toronto Maple Leaf hasn’t won a major NHL award in an embarrassing amount of years. This year, however, it looks as if there could be a case made for 3 award nominations —major or otherwise, for the Leafs.

The last “major” award was Doug Gilmour winning the Selke Trophy in the 1992-1993 season, 20 years ago.


After looking at potential trade targets in last week’s preamble, it only makes sense to look at the Leafs potential trading chips for the deadline that’s two days away.

Around the trade deadline, eyes always gravitate towards pending UFAs and the Leafs currently have five. It’s safe to say UFA to be – Colton Orr, Mike Kostka and Ryan Hamilton – aren’t going to bring Toronto anything via trade so we can cut them off the list of names to discuss. The other two UFAs to be are Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur.


Toronto overcame a slow start on the second night of a back-to-back set to close out the league-worst Florida Panthers at home.  The game featured the return of Joffrey Lupul to the Kessel line, simultaneously heralding the revival of said line as contributing members of the team.


James Mirtle wrote the other day about how the first Pascal Dupuis goal in the crushing 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh last Thursday was the back breaker when it came to Korbinian Holzer’s time with the Leafs this season. Holzer challenged Chris Kunitz on the boards and Kunitz came out cleanly with the puck to start the play that led to the goal. I remember thinking at the time, “Holzer struggles with his outlet pass, he struggles positionally, what are we doing here if Holzer can’t even win a battle on the boards?”

Unfortunately for Holzer that was just one of many recent goals against he’s had a hand in. That said, despite the demotion, I’m not going to write off Holzer as a Leaf asset. I think he could be what Mark Fraser is now if he learns from this experience, gets some confidence back in the AHL (presumably will still be down there for their playoff run), and gets his next crack in a more manageable situation.


The Leafs welcomed the Penguins in what was their second meeting of the season. A win in the first game in Pittsburgh certainly felt good, but this was a Penguins team that has 7 wins in their last 10 games and has just now started to push for the top of the Conference standings. It was a different game entirely.


Since we are almost at the halfway point, I thought now would be a good time to write some notes on each individual player thus far. Here is the close-but-not-quite-halfway Leafs Notebook:


Randy Carlyle has not been with the Leafs for long, but he’s beginning to put his stamp on this team.

Hired on March 2nd 2012, the former Ducks bench boss inherited a team on the decline and wound up finishing with a 6-9-3 record to close out the season in his first 18 games as the Leafs head coach. Questions and attention were given to things such as whether or not Carlyle, a former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, could turn around Luke Schenn’s game, how he was using Connolly-Steckel-Crabb as a shutdown line, whether he and Joffrey Lupul could get along, if Phil Kessel could produce with him, and the intrigue of the looks he was giving Matt Lombardi and Matt Frattin on the top line.

Mike Kostka

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.


There’s no better way to kick off a Leafs season than to beat the Canadiens in their own rink, inspiring some hilarious yet predictable non-blowout booing from the fans and some verbal pleas to the front office to strike a deal with their unsigned RFA.

Randy Carlyle

It appears, to some degree, the waiver issues prevented the Leafs from giving Morgan Rielly a five-game look, but circumstances as they are, it makes a lot more sense to send down Rielly now than risk losing Mike Kostka or Mark Fraser to waivers before they’re given a look in some NHL games. It was highly unlikely the Leafs would’ve let him stay for longer, burning a year of his ELC, so why risk assets for a teaser?