TORONTO – He was signing the contract to play in Germany the next day. Two solid, if unspectacular, seasons in Portland had yielded nothing for stability. He was 24 and out of options. It was only then that fate intervened. Good buddy and then-American League colleague Marco Rosa stopped by to survey the scene.
"I was like 'Yeah I'm going to go to Germany'," recalled the 6-foot-1, 200 pound defender. "He was like 'You can't do it'. And I was like 'What do you mean, I'm signing tomorrow!' And he was like 'If you think you even have a 1-percent chance of playing in the NHL you can't go to Europe now'. It just made sense and I was like 'Alright I'm not going'."
27-year-old Marlies defenceman Mike Kostka currently owns the hottest, rising stock in Toronto. Trailing only Justin Schultz, the Oilers top defensive prospect, in scoring among AHL defenders, Kostka has piled up 28 points in 29 games and emerged as a potential cog in the Maple Leafs wheel down the road.
"He has been impressive," Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke said via e-mail. "High hockey IQ, great patience with the puck, can really thread passes on the power play."
Undrafted after four years at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst – where he served as captain – Kostka has, like many in the American League, never enjoyed the status and security of a top draft pick. Upon his exit from school with the Minutemen, he had exactly one professional option, signing a two-year, entry-level deal with the Buffalo Sabres. "No options make it easy," he said chuckling.
The chip on his shoulder has only grown since.
Remaining in North America during that fateful summer in 2010, Kostka spurned the German team interested in his services, choosing to stay as close as possible to the important eyes of the NHL and their affiliates. Weeks passed that August and still he had no takers on this side of the ocean. Finally, Rochester stepped forward with a one-year American League offer worth the minimum. "I had to take it, I had nothing else," he remembered. "And then that was where I was like 'Okay, enough's enough. I'm not going to put myself in this position again'. I was sick and tired of not having options and people not believing in me. It was a bit of a shot. I thought I deserved better, but it was a pretty good lesson to learn that that didn't even matter."
Kostka exploded for 16 goals and 54 points that year with the Americans, this after posting 57 points combined in two seasons with the Pirates in Portland. He landed with the Florida Panthers organization the following summer in 2011, one of the final cuts for the NHL squad that fall. Assigned to San Antonio, Kostka was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning after just 18 games last season, landing with the Norfolk Admirals, whom he helped to a Calder Cup with an AHL-leading 12 points (among defenders) in the postseason.
On the Leafs radar since his days in Rochester two years back – cemented by his strong performance in the Final against Toronto, a four-game loss for the Marlies – Kostka, an Etobicoke native, signed with his hometown team on a one-year deal this past summer.
A poised, intelligent decision-maker on the back-end, his game is little flash and mostly substance, a do-it-all type for the Marlies who has steadied the top pairing, killed penalties, run the powerplay, piled up points (11 in the last nine games) and played in every game this season.
"He's not a flashy guy," said Gord Dineen, the Marlies assistant coach, charged with spearheading the defence, "but he's just effective the way he gets things done, the way he moves the puck, the way he shoots the puck, the different ways that he garners offence."
Dineen knew before the year began that Kostka had an intuitive knack for the game. His brother Kevin – now the Florida Panthers head coach – told him as much after coaching Kostka in Portland, boasting of the defender's high hockey I.Q. "The way Kevin described him is right on," recalled Dineen of the conversation with his younger brother. "The different view of the game that he holds is sort of what Kevin described to me. I'm seeing it in details, maybe more on the defensive side of it than the offensive side."
Generally expecting the offensive production, Dineen has been most impressed by Kostka's anticipation in the defensive zone, his "puck sense" or ability to read how a play might develop. "He's not the most physical guy, but he makes people go through him," noted Dineen.
That all-around ability and intelligence is driving Kostka's stock higher and higher within the Leafs organization. If an NHL season is to be salvaged, his name will figure strongly in the conversation for one of the final spots on the Leafs defence – also include Paul Ranger, Korbinian Holzer and even Mark Fraser in that mix among Marlies – versatility and minimal cost ($600,000) surely working in his favour. "When he goes to the NHL, yeah, he's going to have to make adjustments," said Dineen, "but I think he's smart enough to make those adjustments, just maybe do things a little bit quicker sometimes with the puck."
The lockout was admittedly "deflating originally" for a player looking toward the next level, but Kostka notes that "even if it comes back that doesn't mean much anyway; it's all about making sure I'm taking care of my business here and doing everything I can to make sure I'm opening as many eyes as possible and hopefully make a good imprint on the organization".
While the NHL is trending toward youth with ready-made stars in a cap-conscious world, Kostka could just prove himself a late-bloomer, his contributions climbing upward in each of the past three seasons. Aside from the standard team-related missives, the affable and engaging Kostka says he's focused on "rounding out my game so that I can't have a team go 'we're not calling you up because of 'X' or 'Y'", more or less not giving any team the chance to say no.
"For me it's always been a matter of proving people wrong and basically having the mindset of not giving anyone an opportunity to not give me a chance," said Kostka. "I haven't been given my opportunity at the next level yet and I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that I do."