MONTREAL — You can call it the youth movement, or you can call it a good system. Whatever it is, the Leafs got off to a pretty solid start thanks to guys who previously ply their trade with the Marlies.
Defenceman Mike Kostka was thrust into an uncommon spot. He grinded things out for 341 AHL games before finally getting a chance to see what he can do at the NHL level. He did it by working hard during the Leafs six day training camp, winning a spot outright. It wasn’t for spot duty, but to play with the captain on the top paring to eat maximum minutes.
Given the unusual circumstances, you could forgive Kostka if nerves would overtake him or he’d make a mistake or two. But any shortcomings he had in his debut were not clear at first glance, as he appeared to be anything but out of place. Thirty-five shifts and one assist later, he looked like he belonged.
“It really is astounding that he hasn’t played a game before tonight, in the league,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
His defensive partner agreed.
“To come in here, Toronto and Montreal and to have a game like that, his first NHL game I thought it was great,” said Dion Phaneuf.
Nazem Kadri was much maligned for much of his tenure as part of the Leafs organization. He’s been tested to the limit and he continues to play with a chip on a shoulder, something he says motivates him. Kadri’s improvement at camp was noticeable and there really isn’t anything left for him to accomplish in the AHL. With a lot of pressure put on his shoulders, he is steadily improving.
In his 9:53 of ice time on Saturday, Kadri made the most of it. He created chances and set the tone for the game by scoring the game’s opening goal.
He made it hard for Carlyle to send him down and now he’s making the coach rethink Kadri’s minutes.
“It was probably my fault that he didn’t get as much as I would have liked him to get,” said Carlyle. “I’m sure that will change as we’re going to need everybody. But he’s a dynamic young player. He’s got his offence but there is a lot to his game.”
Of course there was also that decision of whether the Leafs would go with James Reimer or Ben Scrivens in goal. Reimer, the No. 1 netminder heading into camp, didn’t look nearly as sharp as Scrivens did and rightfully so, got the nod on this night. His 12 games last year went a long way into preparing him for this, as did his Calder Cup run and 22 games with the Marlies this season.
It’s too early to get excited. But there is a real sense that skill and development will win over previous salary and standing within the club. You couldn’t say that last year when Scrivens appeared to outperform the goaltenders that were at camp. James Reimer was always going to get his shot to start the season at No. 1 given how well he played the previous season, and Gustavsson’s one-way contract made him immovable. It was better at that time to have Scrivens start in the AHL.
If the Leafs continue to hold to a true meritocracy, there is a chance for success here. One game down, 47 to go.