The question is hard for Kenny Agostino to answer.
Why did he not get called up to the Toronto Maple Leafs this season?
Agostino has played left wing at the pro level for six-plus seasons now, and the Leafs’ left side sustained long-term injuries to both Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev.
Fellow Toronto Marlie Pontus Aberg got called up. Nic Petan and Egor Korshkov and Adam Brooks were given a look, too.
Yet despite leading Toronto’s farm club in goals (27), points (49) and game-winners (three), despite improving his responsibility away from the puck and earning praise from teammates and coaching staff alike, Agostino never got tapped to skate with the big club in 2019-20.
“Some years you feel you performed better than others. Some years it’s resulted in an earlier call-up. This year it hasn’t,” Agostino says over the phone.
Don’t get it twisted: The 28-year-old journeyman isn’t feeling sorry for himself. He’s being matter-of-fact.
And the fact of the matter is he’s packing his bags, setting his beloved golf clubs aside, and embarking on a trip northwest from his parents’ New Jersey home, back across the border.
(Hey, maybe for the best. Agostino’s seven handicap had crept up to a nine during those sanity-saving pandemic excursions to the links anyway: “Gotta put the golf sticks away for a bit, but hopefully whenever I get back out there, I can start trending the other way.”)
After serving his mandated 14-day self-quarantine in a Toronto apartment he’s thankful to be leasing through June, Agostino will join the Maple Leafs for Phases 2 and 3 of training camp as part of their expanded playoff roster.
The call-up echoes Agostino’s career trajectory: Better late than never.
“In terms of the Leafs organization, we’re filled with depth, especially up front. So you can’t really argue with any player that got an opportunity this year. We’re so deep talent-wise up front, especially with young talent,” Agostino explains.
“As a player, it can be frustrating. I still believe I can play and have success in the NHL, but my big thing is you control what you can control in this game, and you just got to be ready for whenever that opportunity comes about. You never know what the next year and a half could bring.”
Agostino knows not knowing.
The Yale grad waited until the fifth round at the 2010 draft to get selected by Pittsburgh, then waited four years to make his NHL debut. Yo-yoing between the farm and The Show, he’s donned 11 different sweaters in 11 different towns for six different organizations over the past six years. He’s been on one-ways and two-ways. He’s won the AHL’s MVP award (with the Chicago Wolves in 2017), and he’s been traded and waived.
What hasn’t wavered, however, is the motivation, the passion, the love.
“There are some days that are harder than others over the course of a season, but what keeps me going, first and foremost, is I still have the belief and desire to play in the NHL. Especially after last year, playing for two different teams [36 games with Montreal and 27 with New Jersey] for my longest period of time, I really believe I am good enough to play in the NHL and have success,” says Agostino, upbeat throughout our 22-minute chat. “Plenty to drive me right there.
“If I felt like my ability or career was winding down and I could settle in and just be an American League player, that’s one thing. But I still feel that I’m capable of playing at that [NHL] level.
“I love to play. I want to compete at the highest level. This is my career. I want to keep pushing myself and I’m not satisfied until I can get back up there and play up there as long as I can.”
Not since his entry-level deal with Calgary has Agostino had the “security” of a two-year commitment, which is what Toronto GM Kyle Dubas gave the forward last summer at a no-risk $737,500 per season (on average).
In return, Agostino put forth an effort and a stat line he can feel proud of. He took strides toward improving his two-way game and details away from the puck, the soft spot for most gifted playmakers. And he assumed a leadership role in a shortened Marlies season fraught with turmoil, spiked with a coaching change and fizzling out with a 29-27-3-2 record, seventh in the North Division.
“The last two months of the season,” Marlies coach Greg Moore says, “he was without a doubt our most consistent and best player.
“He is a person who wants to be the guy that makes a difference for the team — and you could throw him in any scenario. He’s a competitor. He’s a good leader. Obviously has a real knack for the net and scoring touching and a great shot. Great person to be around.”
On the road, Marlies don’t get to select their hotel roommates. So, it’s telling that the club placed rookie goaltender Joseph Woll — a 21-year-old prospect for whom the Leafs have high hopes – with Agostino.
“I got assigned Kenny and it worked out well,” Woll enthuses. “He’s an awesome guy. He obviously is a great hockey player, and he’s had a lot of success in his career, and I think he’s still is gonna have a lot of success. But he’s really an unbelievable person. Just a great guy to have in the locker room and be around him and a good leader for our team.”
The mantle of leader is one that kinda sneaked up on Agostino. It’s not something he’s consciously strived for, but hang around long enough, work hard enough, and you can end up an example.
“I’ve always just wanted to treat players and teammates the way I would have wanted to be treated coming into the league,” Agostino says. “As a younger player on my team, I always want you to feel comfortable to talk to me. I want to be approachable.”
From the outside, Agostino is in a paradoxical spot. He’s an encouraging presence in a room full of younger talents gunning for the same job he is.
Look at the Leafs’ post-pause developments: Mikheyev is healthy. Fellow left-shooting forwards Nick Robertson and Alexander Barabanov are coming to town. These fresh hurdles between Agostino and an 86th NHL game could well eighty-six his hopes.
Do these constant of waves internal competition bog him down?
That’s an easier question for the optimist to answer.
“I don’t really look at outside factors,” Agostino reasons. “Every team that you’re on in pro hockey, you’re battling, you’re competing with someone for a position. So, who gets signed where is kind of irrelevant to me. My focus is still my focus, regardless of what’s going on around me.
“Until someone says I can’t anymore, I’m going to continue to work and try to get to that next level again. For me, nothing really changes. I’m still hungry to earn an opportunity to play in the NHL.”