Kostka, Stanton — friends and rivals — battle for Blackhawks’ last defenseman spot
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter September 26, 2013 7:02PM
Blackhawks' Ryan Stanton (inset) and Michael Kostka.
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Updated: September 26, 2013 9:48PM
When he’s out on the ice, Michael Kostka isn’t wondering if one bad pass, one wrong stride or one lost opponent is going to be the one that costs him a spot in the NHL this season. He’s not constantly looking over his shoulder to see if Joel Quenneville’s glare has found him. He’s not sweating every little detail. He’s just out there playing hockey.
But when he’s sitting around the hotel with nothing to keep his mind occupied? That’s a different story.
“I’ve gotten to a point where I feel I can relax out there and just play my game,” Kostka said. “If anything, I’m more stressed when I have free time, and you’re sitting there, and you’ve got friends texting you, ‘Are you [on the team]?’ Man, shut up! I don’t know! I’m trying not to think about that right now!”
There are only four days left before the Blackhawks open the 2013-14 season against Washington on Tuesday night, and the final roster likely will be set shortly after Saturday night’s preseason finale against the same Capitals.
And while five forwards are jockeying for three spots, on defense, it’s a one-on-one matchup. Joel Quenneville said he will be keeping an eighth defenseman out of camp, so it’s Kostka, the veteran, against Ryan Stanton, the rookie. One of those two will be a member of the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday. One of them will be a Rockford IceHog.
And time is running out for each to make their case.
“Definitely, you get a little nervous when you go to the rink,” said Stanton, a Black Ace during the Hawks’ run to the Stanley Cup last spring. “But you can’t think too much about it. If you’re worried about if you’re going to get cut today, or who’s going to make it, that’s just going to affect your play.”
Making things even more uncomfortable is the fact that Kostka and Stanton have become fast friends this camp. After all, a couple of weeks ago, there were about 30 players at the team hotel downtown. Kostka and Stanton now are among just a handful left. On Wednesday night, they were out for dinner together at Prosecco. On Thursday morning, they were fighting for their careers against each other at Johnny’s IceHouse West.
Same thing goes for the forwards trying to crack the roster — Jimmy Hayes, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri and Joakim Nordstrom. Stanton lived with Hayes, Morin and Pirri last year in Rockford, and has roomed with Morin and Pirri his whole professional career.
“It’s kind of crazy it all came down to us being on the bubble right now,” Stanton said. “It’s cool to be in it together.”
Cool, yes. And maybe a little awkward.
“In a way, you’re pulling for each other, but you’re pulling against each other,” Kostka said. “It’s a strange dynamic. No one’s out to get anyone. You’re all in the same boat, and you understand how tough and stressful the time can be.”
Both Kostka and Stanton have had their difficulties locking down the spot. Kostka has really only had one preseason game so far in which to audition. He was injured on a boarding penalty barely two minutes into the preseason opener against Detroit, then was an emergency fill-in at forward in Detroit on Sunday. Monday at Pittsburgh was his first full game as a defenseman — he had an assist, but took two penalties. Stanton, meanwhile, has been up-and-down in the preseason, starting off well enough but taking a minus-3 at Washington on Friday.
Quenneville hinted Thursday that he’s leaning toward the 27-year-old Kostka, thanks to the 35 games he played last year as a rookie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Kostka had a lot of NHL games last year,” Quenneville said. “So sometimes you might be going a little bit [more] on their history than what we’ve seen now. That sometimes goes into the equation when you know that all things being equal, you have other things to measure.”
But Quenneville also insisted he didn’t yet know what his opening-night roster will look like, and that Kostka definitely will play Saturday, because the coaching staff hasn’t had a chance to really evaluate him much. Stanton likely will be out there, too.
The ramifications could be huge for both of them. But the trick is to impress, not to stress.
“They’re going to choose who they want,” Kostka said. “You can think [about it] all day basically, but the thinking isn’t going to be what changes it. It’s going to be what you do. Just try to focus on your actions and do your best to put those thoughts out of your head.”