Tom Kotsopoulos says this is his last season. Like the Sedin brothers, who were drafted in the same year as Kostopoulos, he’s done playing hockey. Well, maybe.
You never quite know with him.
The 39-year-old journeyman thought he was done after the 2012-13 season. But then the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins called and asked if he wanted to extend his career in the minors for one last season. One year turned into five and now he’s one of only four players to have appeared in 600 NHL and 700 AHL games.
“It’s definitely a passion for the game,” said Kostopoulos, whose 11-year NHL career has been bookended by stints in the minors. “And Pittsburgh set me up with a nice role here where I enjoy working with the younger guys and also try to win games. I take it seriously — maybe too seriously.”
But this year is probably his last — for real this time. His body, pushing 40 and with all that professional hockey mileage, is not responding the way it once did. He’s a bit slower, he has missed more time this season because of injuries.
“Every year I wait until the season is over, but I imagine this will be it,” Kostopoulos said. “I don’t know, it’s probably getting time to move on. I want to go to the playoffs and have one more run at this Calder Cup and seeing what we can do. And after that, start thinking about what’s next.”
Coaching would seem like a natural fit. He’s been filling a sort of Reg Dunlop role for the Penguins franchise in the last few seasons.
It’s about a four-hour drive from Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre Township to PNC Bank Arena in Pittsburgh. The distance has seemed even shorter in recent years, with the Penguins’ AHL affiliate sending so many players — from Matt Murray and Jake Guentzel to Conor Sheary and Brian Dumoulin — to Pittsburgh. Even head coach Mike Sullivan made the jump.
Kostopoulos has not been one of them. When the Penguins offered him a contract and the letter “C” on his jersey, it was assumed there would be no call-ups, no chance to live the NHL life one more time, as he once had with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Montreal, Carolina and New Jersey. He was there to simply play hockey and mentor the young kids, although not necessarily in that order.
“We thought it would be for one year,” Kostopoulos said. “Four years later, we’re still signing one-year contracts because it’s been good for me and good for my family. It’s been fun. Every year, I assume it’s going to be my last. It just gives you an appreciation for the game.”
As an NHLer, Kostopoulos was an energy-line forward with limited skill. He was generally good for seven or eight goals and 15 to 20 points per season, but his main job was to finish checks, kill penalties and get into the occasional fight. In the AHL, he has been able to play a more starring role.
Kostopoulos has led Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in scoring in two of the last four seasons. The other two years he finished second. This season, which has been cut short by injuries, he has 17 points in 25 games. For a player who was a seventh-round pick in 1999, it’s impressive, considering that the Penguins’ farm system is deep with NHL talent.
“Playing with him is so easy,” said Teddy Blueger, a 2012 second-round pick of the Penguins. “He’s just so smart. Honestly, he’s probably the best linemate I’ve ever had.”
This year’s leading scorer, Daniel Sprong, is only nine years older than Kostopoulos’ daughter. But Blueger says Kostopoulos is still “an animal in the weight room.” And he’s usually the one breaking up the monotony of a bus trip by putting on his headphones and singing at the top of his lungs to whatever’s on his iPod.
“He’s got his headphones on, so I’m not even sure he realizes how loud he is,” Blueger said. “He pretty much just screams it.”
As the Penguins prepare for a run at a third straight Stanley Cup title, Sullivan called Kostopoulous’ role “invaluable” and said the veteran “brings so much to the team. I can’t say enough about him.” Indeed, he might not have his name on the Cup, but for a team that has won back-to-back championships, he’s played a big part in getting a lot of the names on the Cup to the NHL.
“To see those guys develop and become really good NHL players, I take pride in that,” Kostopoulos said. “We’d all like to hold the Cup too, but that can’t happen. Still, it’s rewarding. We’re all fans too.”
A year from now, Kostopoulos likely will be just that. And yet, in talking to him, you get the sense that he’s not quite ready to fully close the door. He’s still having way too much fun.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “My body feels better the longer the season goes. It feels the worst in training camp when you’re getting back at it. But once you get going, your body seems to catch up and I’ve been feeling better and better.
“It’s almost better not to stop.”
A waddle of young Penguins
Not including head coach Mike Sullivan, the Pittsburgh Penguins have graduated several players to the NHL since Tom Kostopoulos joined the team’s AHL affiliate. “Pittsburgh has set up a nice atmosphere in Wilkes-Barre in not being content here,” Kostopoulos said. “They work hard and guys have continuously moved up and played significant roles in both Cups.” These five have had the biggest impact:
Won his first Stanley Cup in a year where he played just 13 games and then won for a second straight time while still technically a rookie. He’s struggled in a starting role this year, but just wait until the playoffs.
Despite only playing half the season in Pittsburgh, Guentzel came out of nowhere and scored 13 goals and 21 points in 25 playoff games to help the Penguins win back-to-back Cups.
What the stay-at-home defenceman lacks in offence, he makes up for in his shutdown ability, often logging top minutes against the other team’s best lines and killing penalties.
The undrafted winger has benefited in the past from playing with on a line with Sidney Crosby, but with 17 goals this season in a third-line role, he’s always showing that he can produce on his own.
Rust played the Game 7 hero against the Tampa Bay in the 2016 Eastern Conference final. Since then, he’s been dubbed Mr. Elimination for his series-clinching goals against Columbus and Washington.
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