When Michael Kostka’s agent, Hinsdale-based Justin Duberman, started pushing for Kostka to sign with the Blackhawks over the summer, the 27-year-old defenseman was skeptical. He was enamored with the Hawks’ puck-moving style of play and the quality of the organization, but he could also count. The Hawks had all seven defensemen coming back from a Stanley Cup-winning team, and several touted young blue-liners trying to crack the lineup.
“Initially, I was thinking, ‘There’s no way; it just doesn’t seem to add up,'” Kostka said.
But Kostka, a rookie for the Toronto Maple Leafs last year, liked what he heard from the Hawks management. More importantly, he believed it.
“They really did give me a good feel,” Kostka said. “And I felt like they were pretty candid with me, which I appreciated, because it’s always tough to try to weed through what people are telling you and what they actually mean. So I’m thankful for them holding up their end, that if I were to come in and put my best foot forward, there was potentially an opportunity.”
Kostka is one of two surprises to make the team out of camp. While Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith seemed to have spots sewn up early, Kostka and forward Joakim Nordstrom essentially came out of nowhere to make the team. For Nordstrom, it became official after Saturday’s preseason finale, when Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri were sent down to Rockford. For Kostka, it became official on Sunday when Ryan Stanton was put on waivers (he was claimed by the Vancouver Canucks on Monday).
“I was thrilled,” Kostka said. “It was a big goal of mine. I knew I wasn’t guaranteed anything coming into it. I knew I was going to have to put my best foot forward and I feel I did.”
Both Kostka and coach Joel Quenneville said his offensive skills are a good fit for the Hawks, whose team game is largely predicated on defensemen making quick and accurate breakout passes to the team’s arsenal of talented forwards.
“The one thing that really was attractive here, it’s a puck-moving team that’s got awesome forwards — just basically get them the puck and get into the play and that’s the stye of play that I like to play,” Kostka said. “It’s a bit of an adjustment with how things were in Toronto, a little more defensive-minded team. And so it’s a breath of fresh air coming in. I feel like I jell a little more with this style of play than maybe that shutdown role that I had in Toronto.”
Nordstrom, who’ll be playing the Michael Frolik role as a fourth-line right wing who kills penalties, was an even longer shot — a 21-year-old with just 11 AHL games under his belt competing against the AHL’s leading scorer, Pirri, among others. Quenneville said he wasn’t really “on the radar” entering camp. But Nordstrom never felt the odds were stacked too high against him, and said his consistency, defense and commitment to “good, smart hockey” won him the job.
“I knew there was an opportunity that I could make the team,” he said. “I knew what I had to do.”
And Nordstrom knows what he has to do to stay, too. The hard part isn’t over.
“This is where it all begins,” he said. “Hard work brought me here, but hard work is going to make me stay on the team, and keep developing, and help the team win hockey games and trophies.”
As for Stanton, a Black Ace last spring, Quenneville expressed disappointment that the Canucks claimed the 24-year-old. But with eight defensemen on the roster, and other prospects — such as Adam Clendening and Dylan Olsen — in the pipeline, there wasn’t a clear path to the NHL for Stanton.
“We liked the depth he gave us; he played well for us,” Quenneville said. “It’s good for him to actually get the chance, he’s going to play at this level right off the bat [in Vancouver]. We wish him well. You certainly can always use extra defensemen in your organization and he definitely gave us some good depth.”
NOTEWORTHY: Marian Hossa, Michal Handzus and Corey Crawford are all expected to play in Tuesday night’s season-opener against the Capitals. Hossa and Handzus missed the entire preseason, while Crawford skipped Saturday’s game with lower-body stiffness.