TORONTO – Mike Kostka realizes that his ambitions are not particularly unique as it pertains to the game of hockey.
"I've 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. "It's still a dream of mine, that's 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 they're on one-way [contracts]'. They're like 'Go down, you'll get called up, you'll get a ton of games, don't 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 I'm getting better," he said. "It's funny, [I see] a lot of 21-year-olds on the [Marlies], I'll be 27 in November, but I'm in the best shape of my life, I feel like my game is still improving, there's 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 they'd monitored closely over the previous three seasons.
"We played them in the final and they're the enemy for that time, but I grew up just down the street," said Kostka with a grin. "It's 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 they're 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 he's got a real high hockey IQ," said Dineen, noting Kostka's strong fitness testing scores as an indication of his work ethic. "He's not a real riverboat gambler out there, he makes high percentage decisions and he moves the puck quickly. That's the way you've got to play the game nowadays."
Kostka has evolved into an effective point-producer from the back-end, but it's 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 he's 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."
It's 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 don't 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 organization's 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 one's 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 can't control where you're not, all you can do is take care of your business."