CRANBERRY, Pa. — If a player retires and makes the transition to an NHL front office job, a common starting point is the role of player development coach.
Bill Guerin was a Penguins development coach for three seasons from 2011-14. Mark Recchi also began as a development coach with the Penguins for three seasons from 2014-17. Sergei Gonchar joined the Penguins as a defense development coach after retiring in 2015, and held the position for two seasons.
It's a natural step for players who took on the role of a mentor in their later years as a player. So, it's no surprise that Tom Kostopoulos is thriving in the position.
Kostopoulos, 40, has now been on the job for a full year after being hired by the Penguins in June 2018. The exact job description of a development coach isn't rigid; the day-to-day responsibilities vary. Kostopoulos has helped run practices during development camp and training camps, worked behind Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's bench as an assistant coach, traveled to visit the Penguins prospects who have not yet turned pro, and taken part in the scouting meetings leading up to this summer's draft.
"My last few years playing, (player development) was part of my role," Kostopoulos said during this summer's development camp. "So I liked working with the young guys. Then this year I didn't have to worry about playing, I (could) just focus on that. It was fun for me going back to Wilkes-Barre and working with the guys there; it was fun for me traveling to see our prospects play and getting to know them."
For Kostopoulos, who played in the OHL as a young prospect, an added perk of the job has been being able to see other parts of the hockey world.
"I love college hockey now," Kostopoulos laughed. "I never got to see college hockey before. I'm like, 'This is awesome.' It was great."
Kostopoulos' former teammates appreciated having him serve in a coaching role last season.
"It's always nice to have him around," Sam Lafferty told me of Kostopoulos during the year. "I like having him on the bench. He's always really supportive, kind of like how he was as a captain last year. Even though he was a great player, he was also like a second coach on the ice. It's no surprise to see him doing that now."
Thomas Di Pauli also benefitted from Kostopoulos' influence. Di Pauli was playing well to start last season, but after 12 games he had no goals and just two assists to show for his efforts. Finally, something clicked and he scored six goals and four assists in a nine-game stretch from Nov. 10 to Nov. 28. I asked Di Pauli if he thought there was anything he did differently that led to that run.
“'TK' actually pulled me aside about 10 games ago before one of the pregame skates,” Di Pauli told me at the time. “We just did some shooting drills. That game I scored, and then another one the next game. Maybe ‘TK’, just doing those reps with him helped me out subconsciously.”
Kostopoulos has seen many former Wilkes-Barre teammates -- Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl, to name a few -- graduate from the AHL to Pittsburgh and make an impact. He believes that the next crop of prospects are capable of doing the same.
"That's the goal," he said. "Especially as player development, and coaches and management, that's what we want to try and strive for, I think it's a good goal to set. ... I feel like there's guys that can do it. We're trying to help them in any way we can. You look at what Teddy Blueger did last year, (Zach) Aston-Reese if he can stay healthy, and there's other guys that are knocking on the door. We don't want that chain to break, we want to keep it going. I think the players are willing to put in the work, so hopefully we can help them do that."
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