In the nearly nine years since the Toronto Maple Leafs last made the NHL playoffs, how often could you say this: Their homegrown players are their best ones.
Granted, it’s early, but as the Leafs prepare for Monday night’s home opener at the Air Canada Centre against the Buffalo Sabres, that is the most encouraging sign they might be ready to finally shake off their status as a perennial doormat. In the Leafs’ 2-1 win over the host Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, a group of graduates from their Toronto Marlies farm team stole the show.
Centre Nazem Kadri, his linemate, Leo Komarov, goaltender Ben Scrivens and, most notably, defenceman Mike Kostka led the way for the Leafs. Does this mean they will make meaningful contributions in this 48-game season, or did they just get a temporary head-start on some rusty NHLers by playing in the American Hockey League during the lockout?
Given the sloppy play in Saturday’s game and the feeble opposition put up by the Canadiens it is far too early to draw any conclusions. A better indication will come after Monday’s game because the Sabres are a much better opponent than the Canadiens.
In the meantime, the contributions of the newly promoted farmhands are encouraging, particularly in the cases of Kostka and Komarov. They both played their first NHL games on Saturday at the relatively advanced ages of 27 and 25, respectively.
While Komarov is a Leaf draft pick from the seventh round of the 2006 NHL entry draft, it is a stretch to call Kostka a home-grown player. He was signed as a free agent last summer and put in a long apprenticeship in the AHL.
Kostka looked comfortable from the start playing beside Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who is the same age as Kostka but took a much quicker route to the NHL albeit with his own learning struggles. Kostka showed he can play an NHL power play as well as an AHL one with an assist on Kadri’s power-play goal. He also knows how to play in his own end.
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle showed his confidence in Kostka by giving him 22 minutes, 59 seconds of ice time, second only to Phaneuf.
“I thought Mike Kostka was a dominant player,” Carlyle said. “He played a lot of minutes, didn’t make a lot of mistakes, looked like a guy comfortable playing in this situation.
“It really is astounding he hasn’t played a game before [Saturday] in the league.”
Kostka also made an impression on his defence partner.
“He moves the puck well, he’s vocal, he is a smart, smart player,” Phaneuf said. “You can see how strong he is on pucks and that’s why he’s here.”
It remains to be seen if Kostka will remain with Phaneuf on the Leafs’ top defence pair and if his skating is good enough for the long haul. But if he can be a useful member of the defence for the entire season it will give the Leafs one of the best value-for-salary ($600,000 U.S.) signings of the year.
Kadri showed a more complete game than he did in previous stints. It looks like the Leafs just may have one of the best third lines in the league with Kadri between James van Riemsdyk and Komarov, with the latter looking like a real find.
“He’s the workhorse, that guy,” Kadri said of Komarov, who had nine points in 14 games with the Marlies this season. “It seems he never stops working, never stops skating.
“I had the chance to create some chemistry [with Komarov] before, down with the Marlies. I know what he can do, what his strengths are and I’m going to try and play toward that.”
Scrivens, 26, did not play so well fans will stop hollering for general manager David Nonis to trade for Roberto Luongo already but he did accomplish what is expected of himself and colleague James Reimer. Don’t kill the confidence of this young team with too many mistakes.
“We don’t ask our goaltenders to win the hockey game. We ask our goaltenders to give us a chance,” Carlyle said. “I thought Ben Scrivens gave us a chance.”
As noted, one game is too small of a sample size for conclusions but the signs are positive for a change. In the short, 48-game term, there is hope the farmhands will combine with the stars for a playoff run. In the long run, there is hope the Leafs’ development program is finally paying off.