His is the kind of story that hockey writers love. The underdog story of a player who never had a shot at the big leagues, toiling away in the minors, then finally getting their chance.
It’s hard not to love that kind of story. There’s a player in the Canucks organization, Steve Pinizzotto, who is 28 and has yet to play a single NHL game despite several solid AHL seasons thanks to a remarkable string of bad luck. From a story-telling perspective, I desperately want him to play just one game in the NHL, even just to play 8 minutes on the fourth line.
Mike Kostka, however, isn’t playing limited minutes in a minor role. The 27-year-old AHL veteran has stepped directly onto the top pairing in the biggest hockey market in the world. It’s a great story and the Toronto media has been quick to tell it. The only issue is that it doesn’t make much sense.
Our fearless leader asked yesterday what was up with Kostka’s minutes, which got me curious. While I’ve watched several of the Leafs games so far this season, I specifically watched their game against the Hurricanes with an eye on Kostka. It was troubling. I saw some slow decision-making, some sloppy passes, and he struggled to contain the speed of the Carolina attack, with one particularly bad play in the neutral zone that allowed Jeff Skinner to break in all alone, forcing Kostka to trip him.
All that said, he also made some nice plays offensively and he should have had an assist on a Tyler Bozak goal that the video review apparently revealed was directed in by a distinct kicking motion. It was a pretty terrible call. As it is, Kostka has 4 assists through 9 games, and looks like he could be a decent two-way defenceman for the Leafs, as long as he plays relatively sheltered minutes. But that’s not how he’s being used.
As Justin said, time on ice is usually a good indicator of how good a player is, as coaches are supposed to see things that a fan might miss. If that’s the case, Randy Carlyle is seeing something in Kostka that no one else is seeing. I see a top-end AHL defenceman who could play sheltered minutes on a bottom pairing and, perhaps, step into a second pairing in a pinch. Carlyle evidently sees a top-pairing, minute-munching, powerplay quarterback.
That’s what’s truly astounding about Kostka’s ice time. It’s not just that he’s averaging over 25 minutes per game, it’s that he’s playing big minutes in every situation.
Kostka is paired with Dion Phaneuf, leading Justin to theorize that Carlyle is giving Kostka those minutes out of necessity. The Leafs are short-staffed on defence, with Mike Komisarek out temporarily due to a temper tantrum, Carl Gunnarsson resting with a nagging hip injury, and Jake Gardiner down in the AHL, evidently to find his game again post-concussion. The Leafs have to have Kostka in the lineup, so they may as well pair him with their best defenceman, in hopes that Phaneuf can carry the pairing.
The problem is that Kostka is not only second on the Leafs in even-strength ice time, he’s also second among Leafs’ defencemen in powerplay ice time. Kostka is on the Leaf’s top unit with the man advantage, even though he doesn’t look like he’s the right fit for the job. While he has a few powerplay assists so far, the Leafs’ powerplay as a whole has struggled mightily, and Kostka doesn’t seem to be helping. His decision-making just isn’t quick enough and his shot and passing are not strong enough to be on the top unit.
He’s also averaging around 2 minutes per game on the penalty kill, where he got victimized against the Hurricanes, losing track of the puck while covering his man and having an Eric Staal pass bank in off his skate. While part of that is certainly bad luck, completely losing track of the puck while on the penalty kill is not a particularly good sign.
At even-strength, because he’s playing with Phaneuf, Kostka is facing the opposition’s top players, a role that he doesn’t seem suited for. According to Behind the Net, Kostka has the second highest quality of competition among Leafs’ defencemen, just behind Phaneuf. That’s not the kind of situation you want to throw a rookie defenceman into, even if that rookie is a 27-year-old AHL veteran. Especially if that rookie is a 27-year-old AHL veteran.
As a result, both Kostka and Phaneuf are struggling in the puck possession department and have the worst Corsi ratings among Leafs’ defencemen, though the sample size is admittedly still small.
I just don’t understand it. At this point, Kostka is 13th in the NHL in time on ice, despite having never played in the NHL prior to this season. It’s not just because of injuries; even when Gunnarsson and Komisarek were healthy and Gardiner was in the lineup, Kostka was still playing 23+ minutes per night. Meanwhile, Cody Franson, who is by all measures much better than Kostka, is averaging less than 15 minutes per game.
It’s not that he’s bad, really. He’s just not that good. He’s not a top-pairing defenceman on any other NHL team and shouldn’t be a top-pairing defenceman on the Leafs.
How does such an unremarkable defenceman wind up playing so much? After his first NHL game, the season opener against Montreal, Carlyle was quick with his praise:
“I thought Mike Kostka was a dominant player,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “Played a lot of minutes. Didn’t make too many mistakes. Looked like a guy that was comfortable playing in this type of situation.”
Carlyle evidently has a different definition of the word “dominant” than I do.
It would be really easy to turn Kostka into a feel-good story about perseverance. Quite frankly, it still would be a feel-good story if Kostka was even playing just 15 minutes per game, considering his long road to the NHL. Playing big minutes makes the story that much more dramatic, but it also makes it the wrong story to tell. Instead, we should be focussing on Carlyle and wondering just what it is that he thinks he’s doing.