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Oct 18, 2012 10:53pm
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TORONTO – Mike Kostka realizes that his ambitions are not particularly unique as
it pertains to the game of hockey. Nike Rob Gronkowski Jersey . “Ive still never
played in the NHL,” said Kostka, an engaging personality born in the Toronto
suburb of Etobicoke and raised in not-so-distant Ajax. “Its still a dream of
mine, thats still my goal.” The now 26-year-old defender was on the cusp in the
Sunshine State last fall, among the final cuts at training camp for the Florida
Panthers. “They were like Yeah you did a great job, you outplayed some of our D
that we have here, but theyre on one-way [contracts]. Theyre like Go down, youll
get called up, youll get a ton of games, dont worry about it. And then in two
months I was traded.” He eventually landed with the Norfolk Admirals, the
American League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a club whose dominance
last season included not only a Calder Cup – defeating the Toronto Marlies no
less – but a ridiculous 29-game winning streak.  Undrafted out of the University
of Massachussetts-Amherst, Kostka might just be your prototypical late blooming
defenceman. The shaggy-haired local product began his pro career with two
inconsistent seasons in Portland before breaking out in full offensive force
with Rochester in 2010-2011, blasting 16 goals and 55 points from the blueline.
While not quite as strong statistically last season – he ranked 15th among
defencemen in the regular season – Kostka wrapped up the American League
post-season in superb form, totalling more points than any other defender. “I
still feel like Im getting better,” he said. “Its funny, [I see] a lot of
21-year-olds on the [Marlies], Ill be 27 in November, but Im in the best shape
of my life, I feel like my game is still improving, theres always room for
improvement.” Kostka was of course most notorious in these parts for his one in
a million overtime goal in Game 3 of the final against the Marlies, bouncing a
puck off the corner stanchion for the third win in an eventual series sweep. It
was less than one month later that he joined the hometown enemy. His phone rang
with an offer from Toronto no more than five minutes into the free agency
blowout, the organization keen on snatching a defenceman whose progress theyd
monitored closely over the previous three seasons. “We played them in the final
and theyre the enemy for that time, but I grew up just down the street,” said
Kostka with a grin. “Its always trying to weigh the balance between the offer
financially and what you see for opportunity of yourself moving up. A
combination of both helped me make that decision; happy I did.” The Marlies have
a pretty good idea of what theyre getting in Kostka, first and foremost from
their most recent head-to-head experience, but also from the small-world
familial ties within the game. Gord Dineen, an assistant coach and the man
charged with spearheading the defence, rang up his brother for insight;
Kevin Dineen, now the head coach of the aforementioned Florida Panthers, had
coached Kostka in Portland. “The one thing that Kevin always said about him is
that hes got a real high hockey IQ,” said Dineen, noting Kostkas strong fitness
testing scores as an indication of his work ethic. “Hes not a real riverboat
gambler out there, he makes high percentage decisions and he moves the puck
quickly. Thats the way youve got to play the game nowadays.” Kostka has evolved
into an effective point-producer from the back-end, but its not a skill-set that
was immediate to him, rather one that he worked to polish. Granted steady
opportunity in Rochester, he also progressed into a wily quarterback on the
powerplay. ”Maybe hes been a guy that early on, it took him a little while to
develop the skill to be a top-end American Hockey League player which he is
now,” said Dineen. ”…we feel like he can evolve into an NHL player in the same
regard.” Its hardly unusual for defencemen to progress at slower speeds, no
better a recent example than Jason Garrison, the newly-minted Vancouver Canucks
blueliner who broke out in earnest as a 27-year-old with Florida. The Leafs dont
boast an especially deep defence, keeping open the prospect of Kostka as a
darkhorse when and if the lockout lifts this season. Jake Gardiner, his current
defence partner and the organizations crown jewel is more exception to the rule,
a defender who burst into the NHL as a 21-year-old last season. Seasoned with
experience, Kostka continues to chase the familiar dream. “The hockey world is
crazy,” he said. “You talk to any guys that have gone through it, no ones alone
in their pursuit of their goals and the ups and downs and sometimes more downs
than ups. The biggest thing is staying focused on where you are now. You cant
control where youre not, all you can do is take care of your business.” Rob Gronkowski Jersey . —Dasan Sydora
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gap on his mantle piece for the biggest prize of all. “Im not going to shy away
from it. Thats the one thing missing on my resume – I want to win majors,”
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