In the modern era of the National Hockey League, possessing a deep pool of valuable prospects is key. In fact, a solid farm system counts as one of the largest necessities in building a perennial Stanley Cup contender. The Tampa Bay Lightning now own the reputation of being rich in young studs. The fact the Syracuse Crunch are an AHL power is a testament of that. However, this was not always the case.
A year after the team made the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning fell short of the postseason. General manager Steve Yzerman, in his second year on the job, entered the 2012 NHL Draft with two first round selections. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and defenceman Slater Koekkoek shook Yzerman’s hand that day, and were welcomed to Lightning organization.
The Lightning selected Koekkoek 10th overall, while they used the 19th overall pick on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. On paper, Yzerman had just secured a stalwart on his blueline, as well as his franchise goaltender. Fast forward six years, and half of this fortune has come to reality, with Vasilevskiy posting a Vezina finalist season in 2017-18. This was the first nomination of his young career. Meanwhile, Koekkoek has bounced around the system and been consistently in and out of the lineup. Why is that?
Since making his NHL debut in 2015, the young blueliner has shown some impressive flashes of what he can do.
Think back to your most recent memories of Koekkoek, and you’ll most likely recall a two-goal performance in October 2017 against the Penguins. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find Koekkoek making a savvy veteran-like play at the point versus Nashville. He set up captain Steven Stamkos for the game-tying goal in the final minutes, helping the Bolts earn a crucial two points in January 2018. This begs the question: will Koekkoek finally earn his time to shine? Where and what is the disconnect between the higher-ups in the Lightning organization and the budding defenseman?
The decision to continue his excruciatingly drawn-out development is mystifying when one remembers that this is a Lightning team in desperate need of a defenseman of exactly his description. For a defense corps that has seen Matt Carle and Andrej Sustr on the third pairing in recent years, Koekkoek should have fit right into this group. Yet over the last few seasons, the Lightning have chosen to bring in veterans such as Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Ryan McDonagh, further pushing Koekkoek down the depth chart. Many Bolts fans have been left scratching their heads, wondering how a 10th overall pick has yet to play more than 35 games in a season in a Lightning uniform. Especially when considering this was a team plagued by their share of injuries at times in recent years.
Times have changed in the NHL, and it’s not uncommon to see high draft picks stepping in, immediately filling large holes and gaining valuable experience for their teams.
Look no further than down the highway to Sunrise and defenseman Aaron Ekblad, for example. As a rookie for the Florida Panthers, he stepped up in his first year in the league. Filling a top-pairing position for the Panthers, Ekblad posted a respectable plus-12 rating and 39 points as a rookie. Most recently, Charlie McAvoy strolled into Boston and had a ridiculously strong year, coming straight out of college and logging heavy minutes for the Boston Bruins. What is the difference with Koekkoek?
Sure, not every first round pick is going to step into the NHL right away, and Koekkoek didn’t light the ice on fire with every stride in his very minimal opportunities with the Lightning. However, development is a process. Let’s remember that multiple stars in the Lightning organization didn’t exactly look like elite players out of the gate. Take Steven Stamkos for example, who scored only 23 goals in his rookie year, and didn’t post a positive rating until year three of his now illustrious NHL career.
An even better example would be another Lightning blue-liner. One by the name of Victor Hedman, who was a minus-3 and took 79 penalty minutes in his opening season while failing to reach the 50-point plateau until his fifth season. The point is, Slater Koekkoek has talent. Lots of it. As did all the aforementioned NHL superstars who burst out of the draft and into the NHL.
While some of them made an immediate impact, some did not, and many of the former wound up being cornerstones of their respective franchises.
So what does a one-year contract mean for Koekkoek?
If you’re an optimist, you might think this could result in more ice time and one last chance to prove himself. However, the past few years have seen the entrance of the talented Mikhail Sergachev to a Lightning defensive corps. A corps more crowded by the likes of McDonagh, Stralman, Girardi, Jake Dotchin, and Braydon Coburn. However, Girardi, Coburn and Stralman each have one year left on their contracts before becoming unrestricted free agents next summer. From a less analytical perspective, all three are getting older and their speed is diminishing. Koekkoek could provide the Lightning with a much-needed injection of youth and speed.
One thing we have figured out at this point is that Koekkoek has long-outgrown AHL duty. However, he still hasn’t received an extended look on the Lightning’s blue line during his tenure with the team.
This season could go one of two ways for the 24-year-old blue-liner.
He could end up with more ice time,especially if injuries strike, as the Lightning have shaken up their coaching staff under head coach Jon Cooper. What could be more likely, however, is Koekkoek ending up as part of a trade.
Does the name Erik Karlsson ring a bell? Should the Lightning swing a trade for the Ottawa Senators’ superstar defenseman, as has been rumored, a package including Sergachev, Koekkoek, or both wouldn’t be surprising. You have to give up something to get something, and Ottawa wouldn’t simply give Karlsson away for nothing.
There’s no doubt that Koekkoek has fallen through the cracks, yet we aren’t sure why. Could there be a feud between him and Yzerman? Perhaps there’s a disconnect between Yzerman and Cooper on his role with the team? Remember, Yzerman made a deal with Vegas at the 2017 expansion draft that worked out in his favor. He gave the Golden Knights a draft pick and prospect Nikita Gusev in exchange for Vegas agreeing to pick Garrison instead of Koekkoek or Dotchin.
Could this be the year Koekkoek finally makes an impact on a Lightning team in which he arguably should be playing a larger role? Only time will tell.
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