Franson and Kostka: Where do they fit?
What has become evident in head coach Randy Carlyle’s 24 games as the Maple Leafs bench
boss is his penchant for roles and line matching. Each player, no matter their position, contractual status or skill, is given a role that they must fill. These roles, while encompassing certain universal traits, expected of all players – a hard forecheck, first-to-the-puck mentality – are clear and well defined.
For the Leafs forwards, the job of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak was made clear from the start of camp; score goals. Similarly, the checking role of Jay McClement or energy expectations that Colton Orr or Mike Brown are expected to bring can’t be missed when watching a Leafs contest.
On the backend, Dion Phaneuf, while not necessarily your prototypical shutdown defender, has been asked to play said role, in addition to numerous other duties. In other Leafs defenders we know exactly what to expect as well with Carl Gunnarsson as an able two-way defender, John-Michael Liles as an offensive-minded puck mover, Jake Gardiner being the superbly talented young skater, and in Mark Fraser and Mike Komisarek, the interchangeable, physical, bottom-pairing guys.
It’s only in two other d-men where the blue and white are left with somewhat of a peculiar situation. These blueliners include veteran AHL defender and NHL rookie Mike Kostka, as well as 25-year-old defenseman Cody Franson.
For Franson, the heavy shooting, Salmon Arm, BC native, his time as a Maple Leaf has been much different than he expected it would be. Fresh off a combined 50 points and plus-25 rating in his first two seasons on a strong Nashville backend, Leafs faithful – and Cody himself – figured he’d easily slide into a top 6 role on a struggling Leafs blueline. After a rough first couple of weeks with the new club, and some awful communication from the Leafs coach at the time, Franson would find himself in the press box early and often throughout his first season in Toronto playing in just 57 games. Despite posting 21 points and a minue-1 rating in those 57 contests (the best among Leafs defensemen), Franson failed to find a regular spot in a Leafs core that appeared to be fairly set in stone, despite poor play from a soon-to-be-traded Luke Schenn and a complete nosedive from the team in general.
Early on this season, after finding himself in and out of the press box through the first few games of the year, Cody picked it up, potting two points and a plus-3 rating in and overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres. Despite only playing 13 minutes, well below the 17+ minutes he was playing down the stretch last year, Cody managed to shine, putting a couple shots on net and creating opportunities off the rush.
So, where does he fit in?
Well it’s abundantly clear Cody has the tools to be an everyday NHL’er, something the Leafs have potentially missed since he joined the club in a trade for Brett Lebda (Hallelujah!). If given some more consistent minutes, Cody has the potential to prove the critics wrong.
1. Accurate, heavy shot.
2. Size (6’5”, 213 pounds).
3. Decent passer.
4. Capable of playing 1st or 2nd PP minutes.
1. Not physical enough.
2. Often weak on the puck.
3. Average skater.
4. Defensive zone awareness (frequently caught sleeping).
Spot in the lineup: Able 4-6 defensemen, worthy of everyday ice time.
While one potential misevaluation of a player has often resulted in a lack of icetime, another role that has perhaps been misjudged is that of Mike Kostka, who has found himself in the lineup and on the ice… a lot. The 27-year-old career AHL’er and Marlie killer turned Marlie hero, has finally made the transition to the NHL, being placed – oddly I might add – on Toronto’s number one pairing alongside Dion Phaneuf.
While Kostka has earned his shot at cracking the Leafs lineup, having posted PPG numbers as a defensemen with the Marlies, behind only Edmonton’s Justin Shultz among AHL defenders, it’s the sheer volume of minutes that he’s logging that is out of sorts. Playing over 25 minutes-a-game in a responsible role against opposing team’s top lines, Kostka has struggled often seeming panicked in his decision-making and has been weak along the boards. That, however, hasn’t stopped some Kool-Aid guzzling members of Leafs Nation from proclaiming this guy “the real deal.”
1. Decent NHL-calibre skater.
2. Above average shot.
3. Eager to jump into the play offensively.
1. Not physical.
2. Lacking defensive awareness.
3. Often impatient with the puck.
Spot in the lineup: Potential NHL defender better suited for bottom pairing then top pairing. Mike’s been misused and asked to play a role in the world’s best league he’s not yet suited to play. This has been acknowledged by Carlyle, who has begun to spread the minutes out a little more. He doesn’t have the offensive skill to be a consistent point-producer and he doesn’t have the defensive awareness, size or strength to play against the other team’s top players, especially on the PK. Dion needs someone to play with, but Kostka doesn’t look like he’s the guy.
As a unit and as the season progresses, the Leafs D-core will likely need to adapt as they have shown the willingness to play Carlyle’s roles but do not necessarily have the personnel to maintain a competitive level of play. Bottom line is, when the Leafs’ backend is healthy (ie. When Gardiner returns), is there really room for Kostka? It wouldn’t appear so, but then again nothing surprises me in Leafs Land anymore.
In sum, I’ll keep it simple and say play Franson more, and Kostka less/move him down when Gardiner is ready.