Mike Kostka has Leafs fans wondering, “Hey, who’s this Mike Kostka guy?”

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AHL fans will already know the name Mike Kostka.

Soon NHL fans might, too.

Kostka, a 27-year-old defenseman, is creating a good deal of buzz in hockey’s most buzzing market, Toronto. His 28 points are second on the Marlies and second behind Justin Schultz among all the league’s d-men.

“He has been impressive,” Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke told TSN.ca via e-mail. “High hockey IQ, great patience with the puck, can really thread passes on the power play.”

Kostka’s hockey journey has been a long one. The Marlies are his fifth AHL stop following four seasons at UMass-Amherst. He was never drafted.

Last year, he helped Norfolk win the Calder Cup, after which the Leafs signed him to a one-year deal that’s paying him $250,000 to play in the minors. That’s more than most AHLers earn and evidence of the organization’s deep pockets.

If the NHL has a season, cracking the Leafs’ line-up would be a realistic goal for Kostka.

“He’s a guy firmly on our roster that if the NHL ever gets going again here I would hope that he gets at least a look,” Marlies coach Dallas Eakins said recently. “Let’s get him into a game or two and see what he can do at the NHL level.”

Building off a breakthrough: Matt Dumba

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild.

Coming into last season, Matt Dumba already established himself as a pretty nice NHL defenseman.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

Considering how inexact a science drafting can be, the Wild had to set out a sigh of relief that the seventh pick of the 2012 NHL Draft was paying at least some dividends. Even so, the 2017-18 season really put Dumba’s skills on display.

For the third season in a row, Dumba hit the 10+ goal mark, generating a career-high 14. He also achieved a new peak in points, seeing a big jump from 34 points in 2016-17 to 50 in 2017-18. Dumba’s 50 points ranked 19th among defensemen – more than Dustin Byfuglien and Dougie Hamilton – while his 14 goals tied him for 10th at the position.

Really, Dumba presented upgrades across the board.

He already saw increases in ice time (16:50 TOI in 2015-16 to 20:20 in 2016-17), yet this past season really showed just how prominent Dumba’s become for Minnesota, as he logged 23:49 minutes per game. With Ryan Suter sidelined during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Dumba shouldered an even larger burden, averaging just under 27 minutes per game as the Wild fell to the Jets in five contests.

After signing his new five-year, $30M contract, Dumba spoke of even greater growth going forward.

“I look back at my personal growth over the season and I want that to just be the start,” Dumba said in July, via NHL.com. “I think I started the year a little slow, to be honest, and if I can play at the pace I was down the stretch the entire season, I think, I hope, I’m just scratching the surface.”

In that same NHL.com article, you can see new Wild GM Paul Fenton discuss the elite company Dumba is joining from an offensive standpoint.

There’s a lot to love about Dumba’s game already, and he’s probably worth fighting through whatever flaws he has in his game. Still, if he wants to break through from very good to truly elite, becoming more effective in his own end could be key.

You can see big areas of improvement from 2016-17 to 2017-18 in deployment and production via Bill Comeau’s SKATR comparison tool, yet some of the finer defensive points still need some work.

Now, it’s unfair to argue that Dumba didn’t make any strides in his all-around game. While his possession stats seem underwhelming, he went from receiving cushy offensive-zone starts to carrying a fairly heavy defensive workload, so keeping his possession stats at more or less the same level is reasonably promising.

In a lot of ways, the Wild’s outlook feels a little glum going into 2018-19.

The aging curve (or just injuries?) seems to have hit Zach Parise pretty hard, and considering the way Ryan Suter’s season ended, his huge minutes might be taking their toll. Spending big money but failing to get to that next level in the postseason cost Chuck Fletcher his job, and the Central Division only seemed to get grizzlier this summer.

Seeing significant improvements from Dumba and Jason Zucker soothes some of those wounds in Minnesota. If we’ve seen their peaks, they already represent very useful players. The Wild might need even more from them if they really want to leap over the many hurdles in the West, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s Minnesota Wild day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild.

2017-18

45-26-11, 101 pts. (3rd in the Central Division; 4th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-1 vs. Winnipeg Jets, first round

IN:

Eric Fehr
Greg Pateryn
J.T. Brown
Matt Hendricks
Matt Bartkowski
Andrew Hammond
Matt Read

OUT:

Matt Cullen
Kyle Quincey
Daniel Winnik

RE-SIGNED: 

Jason Zucker
Matt Dumba
Nick Seeler

Another year, another disappointing end result for the Wild, who were bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Winnipeg Jets. Unlike in 2017 when they faced the Blues in the opening round, Minnesota was never expected to take down the high-flying Jets, and they didn’t.

The Wild finished with the 2017-18 regular season as the eighth best team in the NHL, which was somewhat impressive considering they had to overcome injuries to Charlie Coyle, Jared Spurgeon, Nino Niederreiter and Zach Parise.

They managed to survive thanks to productive seasons from Eric Staal (42 goals, 76 points in 82 games), Mikael Granlund (21 goals, 67 points in 77 games), Jason Zucker (33 goals, 64 points in 82 games), Matthew Dumba (14 goals, 50 points in 82 games) and goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Unfortunately for them, the one injury they couldn’t overcome was the one to defenseman Ryan Suter‘s fractured ankle. Suter ended up missing the end of the regular season and the playoffs. The 33-year-old was their leader on the blue line. He put up six goals and 51 points in 78 contests. That was a tough break.

The Wild added a whole bunch of bodies this off-season, but none of their acquisitions are core pieces, which means it’ll be the same group that will be relied upon to create offense for this team. They could stand to get some more production from guys like Parise, Coyle and Mikko Koivu if they’re going to be taken seriously in the Western Conference.

Also, Dubnyk will have to continue turning in solid performances between the pipes. The 32-year-old has been rock-solid since joining the Wild three seasons ago. He owned a 35-16-7 record with a 2.52 goals-against-average and a .918 save percentage in 2017-18. When he’s on his game, the Wild are a better team.

Minnesota has some talented youth in their pipeline, but you’d have to think that they’ll need to make a playoff run soon with the veterans that are currently on their roster. Are they good enough to do that? So far the answer is no, but things change in a hurry in the NHL.

Prospect Pool: 

Jordan Greenway, W, 21, Boston University – 2015 second-round pick

Greenway got his first taste of NHL action last season when he suited up in six games during the regular season and five move in the playoffs. He recorded just one assist during the season and a goal and an assist in the playoffs. Greenway is a hulking power forward with offensive upside, which is a rare. He finished his collegiate career by collecting 35 points in 36 games at Boston University in 2017-18, and he has a real chance of cracking Minnesota’s lineup this season.

• Kirill Kaprizov, W, 21, CSKA Moscow – 2015 fifth-round pick

Since being a late-round draft pick, Kaprizov has turned heads in the KHL. He picked up 42 points in 49 games with Ufa Salavat Yulayev in 2016-17 and 40 points in 46 games with CSKA Moscow last season. Kaprizov is loaded with offensive upside. He’s got great hands, awesome puck skills and an ability to find the back of the net consistently. The biggest problem with him right now, is that he has two years remaining on his KHL contract, which means he’s still not close to North America.

Luke Kunin, C, 20, Iowa Wild – 2016 first-round pick

Kunin made the leap from the University of Wisconsin to the professional ranks last season. He collected 10 goals and nine assists in 36 games in the AHL and two goals and two assists in 19 games in the NHL. Unfortunately for Kunin, he tore his ACL late in the season, which led to him having surgery in April.

“I’m feeling good,” Kunin told the Pioneer Press in July. “I’ve been able to get into my strength training as I would’ve if I wasn’t hurt, so that’s been nice. As far as the injury is concerned, the doctors are really happy with how everything has been going so far.”

Kunin’s been an offensive-minded player at every level. He has enough upside to become a top-six forward at the next level.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Sekera out with torn achilles; Letestu gets Panthers tryout

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Philipp Grubauer spent part of his day with the Stanley Cup making friends in the German mountains. [Keeper of the Cup / Twitter]

• The Edmonton Oilers announced on Tuesday that defenseman Andrej Sekera suffered a torn achilles tendon during off-season training and underwent surgery. He is out indefinitely. [Oilers]

• Mark Letestu is heading to Florida Panthers camp on a PTO. [Panthers]

• The NHL preseason begins Sept. 15. [NHL.com]

• Following shoulder surgery, Zach Werenski plans to be in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ lineup on opening night. [Blue Jackets]

• Wysh updates our old “Mount Puckmore” Puck Daddy summer series for 2018. What four faces should represent your favorite team? [ESPN]

• Can Alex DeBrincat end next season as the Chicago Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer once again? [Blackhawk Up]

• How ‘tanking accidentally’ is the wrong way to tank. [Yahoo]

• Ben Meisner’s story is tough to read, but is an important one. [The Players’ Tribune]

Artemi Panarin, Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois could play themselves into the “one of the best lines in the NHL” argument, pending they stay together, of course. [1st Ohio Battery]

• How will Brad Treliving fit both Matthew Tkachuk and Noah Hanifin under the Calgary Flames’ 2019-20 salary cap? [Flames Nation]

Nathan Walker has done a lot in introducing the world to hockey in Australia. [Last Word on Hockey]

• The Vegas Golden Knights are being very aggressive about protecting their logos and marks. [Review Journal]

• It’s not just NHLers putting in the work during Minnesota’s “Da Beauty League” this summer. Minor leaguers are making their mark as well. [The Sin Bin]

• The Washington Capitals retiring Peter Bondra’s No. 12 is long overdue. [DC Puck Drop]

• The 2018-19 NHL season could be the end of the line for these five players. [Featurd]

• Finally, Victor Hedman lands at No. 1 on NHL Network’s list of the top NHL defensemen:

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Three questions facing Los Angeles Kings

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

Want more on the Kings? Check these posts out:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

 1. Can Jonathan Quick do it again?

After a tough 2016-17 campaign where he was limited to just 17 games played, Jonathan Quick produced a very nice 2017-18 season. It was one of the American netminder’s best in the NHL; while his 33-28-3 record didn’t blow anyone away, Quick generated a nice .921 save percentage.

Such work was especially notable because, after hogging the puck under Darryl Sutter, the Kings opened things up – by their standards – thus making life a little tougher on their goalies. They were middle-of-the-pack in high-danger chances allowed (according to Natural Stat Trick), for instance. This isn’t to say that they turned into Swiss cheese, yet there was a give-and-take, and Quick handled the change well.

Can he do it again in 2018-19? And if he cannot – or if Quick gets hurt – will the Kings crumble?

For much of last season, the Kings enjoyed strong backup work from Darcy Kuemper, but the team traded him to Arizona before the deadline.

It’s plausible that there could be a bigger drop-off from Quick to everyone else, then.

If nothing else, though, the Kings have options behind him. Jack Campbell showed some of that first-round promise, albeit in a small sample size, so he might help here and there in a pinch. The Kings also brought back Peter Budaj. On one hand, the journeyman goalie is already 35. On the other, he’s not that far removed from success with Los Angeles, as he surprised with a .917 save percentage over 53 games in 2016-17.

2. Will veterans deliver or hit the wall?

Quick, 32, isn’t the only Kings player who’s accrued a lot of mileage, yet will be counted upon to carry them down the road in 2018-19.

Drew Doughty is still in his prime at 28, but any sign of decay would provide some concern with that eight-year, $88M extension not even kicking in until 2019-20.

Jeff Carter, Dion Phaneuf, and Dustin Brown are all 33. Anze Kopitar is 30, while we discussed the risk-reward scenario regarding 35-year-old addition Ilya Kovalchuk here. Alec Martinez is 31, and even Jake Muzzin could lose a step at 29.

The margin between victory and defeat can be pretty small in sports, so even moderate slippage can be a concern for the Kings.

3. More days of the new?

The Kings picked up the pace last season, and they also saw some young players emerge. Head coach John Stevens must continue to strive for the ideal balance between putting veterans in a position to continue to succeed, allowing young players to thrive, and adapting the team’s structure to be more modern than what was seen under Darryl Sutter.

(After all, it would be silly to throw out everything Sutter put in place, considering how effective the Kings previously were at hogging the puck.)

When it comes to seeing youthful talent ascend, some of that may come down to giving more ice time to someone like Adrian Kempe.

Training camp could also be crucial for the growth of Gabriel Vilardi, an intriguing forward who slipped – slightly – to the Kings at the 11th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

“Gabe, he’s got a big presence out there,” Kings front office member Mike O’Connell said, via NHL.com’s Dan Greenspan. “He sees the ice really well. He finds his teammates. He’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He still has work to do, as most players do when they first start, but it looks good. It’s a good foundation. I think he should fit right in.”

If the Kings can integrate Vilardi into the lineup, then they may finally get some supporting scoring to go with what has frequently been a top-heavy offensive approach. An injection of young talent could go from a nice luxury to a bare necessity if question 2 doesn’t work out so well for the Kings, too.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.