A few months after he devastated the Marlies by accident, Mike Kostka has been handed the keys to the kingdom.
You might remember Kostka. His overtime ricochet off an uncovered stanchion at the Ricoh Coliseum put the Norfolk Admirals up three games to zero in what would soon become a sweep of the Calder Cup finals.
Unwilling to hold a grudge, the Leafs signed the free agent defencemen to a two-way deal this summer.
There will be no repeat of the miracle goal. The offending stanchion was removed in the off season in place of a completely protected one.
Left to the more traditional ways, Kostka has done just fine. His five points lead the Marlies five games into the season. Jake Gardiner, Kostka’s defence-mate, is next with four points.
“Mike is good defensively. He knows when to join with Jake. We could use him as part of a shutdown pair with a Mark Fraser or Paul Ranger,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. “We liked what we were getting but Mike’s actually been better than we thought he would be.”
Undrafted, the Ajax native has played in the Buffalo, Florida, Tampa and now Toronto organizations.
“I think this is a classic case of a guy developing late,” Eakins said. “I know he hasn’t gotten his chance yet but I’d love to see how he would play in an NHL game or even five or six as an audition.”
Mapleleafs.com writer Mike Ulmer caught up with Kostka. Here is an edited transcript.
Mike Ulmer: We thought we would bring you back to the Ricoh Coliseum and see how many times you could pull of that shot. We’d give you a hundred pucks.
Mike Kostka: Cant’ do it now but I know how many would go in. Zero. I could never do it again.
MU: You’re the Marlies leading scorer. Does some of that have to do with playing with Jake Gardiner?
MK: Amazing to think that he’s 21 and has already accomplished what he has. He’s unbelievable.
MU: They gave you the crown jewels, the best prospect in the organization to work with.
MK: It could mean one of two things…
MU: There’s nobody else…
MK: Exactly. Or they need to put their best guy with the worst guy. Actually, it’s awesome. To work a power play with a guy with that kind of skill is easy. Being paired five on five with the guy you were working the power play or penalty kill with…it just keeps a good flow to the game.
MU: Why did you want to come to a team with so many young defencemen?
MK: There are a ton of defencemen, a ton of players everywhere. Toronto is the first phone call I got. They called five minutes into free agency. That sense of urgency I got from them gave me a feeling that they were seriously interested.
MU: Still, you had to look at the depth chart.
MK: You have to balance the offer against what kind of opportunity you think you will find there. For me, I’ll be turning 27 so I’m looking to crack the NHL. It would be easy to chase dollars signs a little more. My goal is to be in the NHL so you have to identify a good opportunity in a good organization when you see one.
MU: It’s almost a self-selection. If your only emphasis is on the dollar and not making the NHL, you’re not the guy they want.
MK: A lot of guys go to Europe because if you compare American League salaries to some of the higher ones in Europe, tax free and in Euros, it looks good. My goal is to play in the NHL.
MU: You’ve played more than 300 games in the minors without one NHL regular season game. How do you have faith in reaching your goal?
MK: I just like proving people wrong. That’s been my thing and it’s really a good feeling when people tell you that you can’t do something and then you prove them wrong. I’m here because I love the game but there is a little added incentive.
MU: Who told you what you couldn’t do?
MK: I can’t tell you. There have been a lot who did as well as a lot of people who supported and believed in me. There are times you wish you had an opportunity. That’s the story in the minors for everybody. I’ve experienced some success at the American League level. When I was 16 I wasn’t that stud defenceman. That’s what makes it all so exciting.”
MU: You weren’t drafted into the OHL.
MK: That’s right. I played Tier 2 Junior A and I was offered a scholarship by the University of Massachusetts. I needed four years to develop. I came out at 23, signed with Buffalo, played two years in the minors. They didn’t qualify me so I signed an American League deal with Rochester. I signed with Florida, then played in the Lightning organization with Norfolk. Here I am.
MU: You’re playing while the NHL isn’t. You’ve got a great body of work. You must feel good about how things are going.
MK: It’s the whole thing about being happy but unsatisfied. The second you start letting complacency slip into anything you do, you don’t work quite as hard and it’s only a matter of time before that catches up with you. I keep the mindset that I’m always being chased. I’m not where I want to be and when I get there I still won’t be fully happy. I will have higher goals then for what I want to accomplish.