When Randy Carlyle selected Mike Kostka to be a part of the 2013 roster, it probably didn’t come as a shock to many Leaf fans. Kostka had impressive numbers during his last few AHL campaigns and already had 34 points in 34 games in 2012-13 with the Marlies, while being named an all-star. Even though Kostka’s play certainly deserved an opportunity up with the Leafs, it’s easy to forget opening night against the Montreal Canadiens was his first NHL game.
Carlyle has put Kostka primarily with Dion Phaneuf, which has both pros and cons. Although if you have seen Phaneuf play in recent games it’s mostly cons. The pro would be that playing with an experienced defenseman like Phaneuf should help a first year player like Kostka have an easier transition to the NHL. The problem, however, is that right now Phaneuf is really struggling. That’s as much as I could sugarcoat things for the Leafs captain.
What’s worse is that Carlyle is matching Phaneuf and Kostka with the opponent’s best forward group on a nightly basis. Over the last two games the pair has combined for a minus-13 rating. Impressive numbers for someone like Tiger Woods, not so much though if you play in the NHL and are trying to keep pucks out of your net.
Now in fairness to Phaneuf, going against the opposition’s top line on a regular basis is not easy, but he still has to be better. On Saturday against the New York Rangers both Kostka and Phaneuf saw Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, and Rick Nash for most of the night, which brings heavy ice-time into play. Kostka played over 31 minutes against New York and Phaneuf logged 32-plus minutes of ice. Playing someone who is only skating in their fifth NHL game over 31 minutes and against an all-star trio is a recipe for failure.
Kostka is actually averaging over 25 minutes a game this season, which is staggering for someone just getting acclimated with the world’s best league. The deceiving thing about Kostka is that he is already 27-years-old and produced at a point-per-game pace earlier this year in the AHL. So it’s easy to be fooled to think he is more prepared than he actually is. Even with his AHL success and maturity, there are very few players that can jump in and accomplish what Kostka is being asked to do.
It would probably make much more sense to play Kostka with someone like John-Michael Liles right now. Liles is averaging just less than 18 minutes a night and typically is going to go up against the second or third line. Those are high percentage situations to succeed and Liles has not finished a game in 2013 with a minus rating yet. That’s a great way to build the confidence of an inexperienced player like Kostka. This could then allow for Carl Gunnarsson to return alongside Phaneuf, where the two played together for 43% of the time in 2011-12. By no means are they a shutdown pair, but at least there is some familiarity between the two.
The one thing that Carlyle is doing right with Kostka is giving him some power play time. That’s an area he excelled at down with the Marlies, and giving him opportunities in those situations in the NHL will only improve his confidence.
Kostka’s struggles as a shutdown defenseman in his brief NHL career doesn’t mean he can’t fill that role someday. The Leafs were cautious with someone like Morgan Rielly as to not stunt his development by putting him into spots he just wasn’t ready for. Kostka is not young, but he certainly is still very inexperienced. He did deserve to make the Leafs out of training camp, but Kostka definitely didn’t deserve the pressure and responsibility that is being put on him so quickly.