One of the six draft picks the Toronto Maple Leafs selected last weekend on the floor of Rogers Arena in Vancouver was a 5-foot-9 defenceman coming out of a high school program in Minnesota with the entire hockey world ahead of him.
A common enough story in his field, but as Mike Koster is just starting his career beyond high school with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL, he is clearly a different type of player.
Selected 146th overall, in the fifth round of the 2019 NHL Draft, Koster was never ranked by any major scouting outlet. Nothing widely spread, or any intense breakdown of his game involving tape of his elite skating ability, he was likely an unknown prospect among the casual fan that invests a portion of time into draft research.
But around circles in his hometown of Chaska, Minnesota, there was the typical hype that is involved in a draft-eligible player.
If anyone in the town of a population of 26,561 people knew the potential of Koster, it was his now-former high school coach and former Buffalo Sabres draft pick, Dave Snuggerud.
“I first met Mike in seventh grade and what impressed me first was when he walked out of that classroom the first day and said thanks,” Snuggerud said. “Which is a little bit different for academics, when you say thank you when you’re leaving. That’s just been the way he been through his entire time we’ve been together. He’s appreciative of everything that has come his way.”
The extremely-thankful defenceman has been a star throughout the Minnesota high school system. Koster last season tied the record for points among defencemen in that league’s history, with a total of 67 goals and 118 assists in just 95 games — enough for 1.95 points per game.
He has clearly been a step above his competition and Snuggerud knew that while organizing tournaments.
“It was funny — whenever he’s been in the high school program, he would be participating in 3-on-3 competitions and his team would always win,” Snuggerud said. “So we even at times would set him up with less strong players on his team, but his team would still win.”
Ferociously competitive, the fifth-round pick has evidently no regards for lightening up on any opponent. Raising the bar for his teammates in those early days of his hockey career, Koster has a knack for making the play on the ice his own.
While it’s easy to judge a player from a seat in the arena or behind a screen, there’s a difference when it comes to making decisions on the ice. It’s common enough to sigh in defeat when a player makes the safe play or doesn’t go for something high-risk, but it seems like Koster has no problem making those assumed plays.
“What impresses me is when I watch a game from up top and I can see the entire play develop, Mike can see that at ice level,” said Snuggerud. “When I’m up top and say ‘Mike, you should make that play’, he makes that play.
“He has a map view at ice level and that is how he plays the game…he’s very goal driven.”
While Koster appears to be literally goal driven, having scored some highlight-reel goals before the Leafs selected him this past weekend, he is locked in on where he wants to be as he progresses through this sport.
The 18 year old will continue playing for the Tri-City Storm next season, but after that has committed to the University of Minnesota, staying with his home state university.
“Growing up, ever since I can remember, I was always watching the Golden Gophers,” Koster said in an interview with Elite League Hockey. “It was pretty tough when they came calling — I always pictured myself in a Gopher uniform.”
But the thought of staying home doesn’t threaten Koster. It’s not a big deal for the defenceman, as he sees the program benefitting him in the long run.
“I don’t think of it as staying home, or staying back,” said Koster, “every decision I’m making right now is helping my development and my career. And at the end of it, it is my career. Since freshman year we’ve starting something in Chaska, I really want to finish it.”
Finishing what he started is exactly what Koster has done on the ice and in practices. Through his time with Snuggerud at Chaska High, he has always completed what he set out to learn and became one of the best around at it.
“It has translated into his youth hockey. Once he got a chance to use [his skill] at the high school level, he mastered it. And now he’s got a chance to play at the USHL level, where he needs the whole fifty games and he’ll master it,” said Snuggerud.
“Mike just needs to be able to process. He needs to be able to experience it and then he masters it. That’s what happened in the classroom, that’s what happened in the rink — he just needs time to learn it and then he can implement it.”
Whenever a problem has come Koster’s way on the ice or in class, it appears that he has been able to use patience and his ability to get right into the subject, to eventually get through it.
As he progresses through this path that he has chosen, there will no doubt be bigger challenges that he will need to overcome. But with the team in mind that drafted him in the fifth round, the Leafs’ reputation as a development-focus franchise has spread through all levels of hockey.
As soon as Snuggerud heard that it was Toronto that selected Koster, he knew that where he was going was the right fit.
“I was excited,” Snuggerud said. “The [Leafs’] minor-league program have good teachers in there, and then with Mike’s situation he will absorb it as he’s being taught. He will then be able to process it and then deliver.
“What they’re doing there — they’re teaching. They are giving their athletes time to progress and then giving them a chance.”
It might seem like the obvious choice, to teach rather than assume the prospect will know what to do immediately entering your own program. But as the high school coach puts it, there are other franchises that have their own reputation set before them.
“[Toronto] has the knowledge to teach, where some of the other programs don’t,” said Snuggerud. “They just expect you to be good, but Toronto is taking the time to teach these kids. [The other teams] teach them what they want to be taught, while Toronto wants it to be done their way.”
Over the years since Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have taken over this organization, development has been a clear strategy. Growing players from the grassroots level and letting them blossom into full-time NHL players.
With this focus in mind, they can take higher-ceiling draft picks like they did in Koster. He certainly has the skating ability and his work ethic is evident, to eventually progress up the steep ladder of the professional hockey career.
“Mike is a smart individual that can understand learning, and then what tops it off is his competitive spirit. I got to see it all the time,” said Snuggerud.
Spending time with him as an athlete and in the classroom, the former NHL and Olympian was able to discover the defenceman’s strategy for facing problems. Weaving his way through what he wants to learn, just as he skates through opponents on the ice.
For right now, Koster knows what he has to work on and knows that this is a long journey ahead of him.
“He’s excited and he’s a good kid,” said Snuggerud. “He knows that’s down the road, so now he’s just working on his goals.”