(Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images)

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.

Comments (16)

  1. I wish you guys would stop bad mouthing Kostka. I picked him up in my fantasy league because we count ATOI, and if you guys ruin this for me I’ll be so mad!!

  2. The real issue isn’t Kostka it is that Phanuef and other defence on the Leafs like “Mr.press box” Komisarek…absolutely suck.

    Franson should be seeing more minutes….but old Dion is the real problem and anchor (not in a good way). He’s supposed to be the leader on defense not Kostka and has been awful.

    Kostka is a pleasent surprise….maybe only guilty of taking advantage of a good opportunity. Focus on the bums who don’t deserve to even crack the line up (Phaneuf, Komisarek, MacArthur….) not the guys who earned a fair shot.

    • totally agree, Phaneuf is absolute garbage, his specialty is hitting the glass on power play. top pair on the pp should be Liles and Franson.

      • Dion is not garbage, he is just simply not a top notch shut down defenseman. constantly playing against other teams elite players exposes his below average foot speed and sometimes questionable decision making. As a defensemen mistakes are always obvious and heavily criticised.when Phaneuf makes a bad play its a scoring chance forthe oposition, when (insert forwards name) turns the puck over at the offensive blueline, the mistake is the same but the reprocusions are less serious. If the leafs had defensemen that played a solid shutdown role against other teams top lines, akin to Vlasic and Stuart(SJ) and Dion spent more time vs second and third line oposition while loging high PP minutes, I dubt thia discussion would even exist.

  3. Also Kostka has a plus minus of -6 as does Dion Phaneuf for a combined -12, I don’t think its a good pair. In my opinion, Dion Phaneuf is the worst defenseman Toronto has, and
    has no business playing against top lines either, he is a non factor on offense and is a liability on defense.
    If Carlyle insists on playing him against top lines the only guy I could see working on their roster as a pairing is; John Michael Liles.

  4. Is it as simple as pairing the new guy with the top D-man to “keep an eye on him”? See Boston with Hamilton being paired with Chara

  5. Kostka has been great.

    The problem is he isn’t very good on the PP, where RC keeps placing him, and the top pairing is playing way too many minutes (causing them to get burned late in the game).

  6. considering “who the fuck is kostka?” yes, yes he is

  7. The problem is that Phaneuf and he should be the third pair not the first. Phaneuf is not our best D man. Then they would b get the right amount of time.

  8. Maybe Carlyle thinks that Kostka reminds him of himself when he was an NHL rookie. I am old enough to remember and Carlyle was terrible in his first year. Since Carlyle went on to win the Norris trophy maybe he thinks Kostka will too. I am using sarcasm for anyone who didn’t recognize it. Seriously, Kostka-Phaneuf is a disaster with Phaneuf giving Kostka all kinds of lessons on how to be out of position and how to give away the puck.

  9. Holy heck, 25+ last night against the Caps.

    Watched the game for about 5 minutes and saw him turn the puck over at the blueline after a faceoff win with a few ticks left in the second period. I was like, is that Kostka, I bet it is!

  10. Phil Kessel
    Dion Phaneuf

    How much do theses guys make? hahahaha

    You want PP points, well where are the forwards……..does anyone want to go in front of the net?
    Bad mouthing Kostka won’t solve the leafs problems.

  11. Seriously, what’s the deal with Phil Kessel being afraid of his own shadow?
    Seriously, what’s the deal with Phil Kessel not having the scoring touch? Lupul?
    Seriously, what’s the deal with Phil Kessel always giving up on the play?
    Seriously, what’s the deal with Phil Kessel?

  12. Ricky i agree with you 100%

    Philsbury dough boy needs to start producing points.

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