He was a long shot to make the Leafs roster when training camp opened up back in September. But Brandon Kozun defied the odds, and suited up for Toronto on opening night.
Then came the setback.
On Oct.17, Kozun suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Detroit Red Wings, an injury that would keep him out for nearly two months.
After three games with the Marlies on a conditioning stint, Kozun was cleared and was an option for head coach Randy Carlyle on Dec.6. But he was a healthy scratch that night. He sat out another game, before taking on the very same team he suffered his injury against on Wednesday night.
Throughout the two months, Kozun’s mindset never changed.
“I think I proved to a lot of people that I can play in this league and contribute at this league. That’s something I want to do. I don’t want to stay there and live off of that,” Kozun said. “I want to keep getting better as a player. It’s something where work ethic comes in. It’s coming to the work every day, working hard and trying to get better every day. The team is winning games every day right now and that is the most important thing.”
At 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds, Kozun has always been told that it was going to be difficult to get to where he wanted to be.
When he reached the milestone of playing in his first NHL game on Oct. 8, having it slip away after just four games could be quite demoralizing. It's a road Kozun is all too familiar with.
“I think anytime you suffer an injury like that, you get down on yourself a little bit. But, it’s all about staying positive and you know you’re going to get your chance again,” Kozun said. “I think I’ve worked so hard up until this point, it’s something where I can’t stop. I come to the rink with the same mentality and take it day-by-day, try to work my hardest and get better every day.”
But Kozun’s speed impressed Carlyle during training camp.
Early in the season, he earned himself ice-time of over 12 minutes playing on the Leafs secondary scoring unit.
Just before his injury, Kozun was moved down to the fourth line: A line that had several different looks, but is now starting to play a larger role for the Leafs.
“He’s been a good soldier,” Carlyle said of Kozun. “He’s worked hard, he’s a no-maintenance guy. We need more contributions from everybody involved and Kozy is one of those guys that’s ready and waiting anytime we call upon him.”
As the roster gets bigger, it’ll be players like Kozun who will be looking to do whatever they can to get into the lineup.
Still, Kozun keeps an even keel.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “I’ve been told my whole life that I can’t play somewhere, that I can’t do this or that. The way you overcome that is by working hard and becoming better. It’s something I’ve been able to do my whole life and something that I’ll try to do.”
A roster crunch is happening.
Carter Ashton returned to the practice for the first time since a 20-game suspension for violating the terms of the NHL/NHLPA performance enhancing substances.
“It was a learning experience, for sure,” Ashton said. “It was a tough couple of weeks, to be able to be back with the guys was nice. The work that I had to do to come back, it was a difficult situation."
Ashton skated with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL during the first part of his suspension so
that he could stay in game shape.
“I said to him the bottom line is you’re part of our hockey club, we support you through these situations, welcome back and get some good practice time under you,” Carlyle said. Ashton’s suspension comes to an end on Dec. 19.
Ashton, along with Kozun will be jockeying for ice-time as we get closer to that date.
James Reimer spent some time talking to the trainers as he tweaked his groin during Friday’s practice. “There was nothing dramatic, just felt a little sort and tired and that’s what happens in those situations,” Carlyle said.
Reimer left practice a little early, which could also suggest the possibility of him starting against Detroit, while Bernier would likely start Sunday against his former team, the Los Angeles Kings.
Roman Polak skated for the first time since suffering an knee injury a few weeks ago. This is right on cue with Assistant GM Kyle Dubas saying that Polak was “progressing nicely” in his recovery.
Leo Komarov missed practice as he continues to suffer from concussion symptoms.
Extra: Kozun, Ashton