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.