Lightning's Slater Koekkoek: 'I've got something to prove'
This time last year, it was Slater Koekkoek's job to lose.
Koekkoek, 23, the former Lightning first-round pick, was coming off an impressive performance in the run to the Eastern Conference Final. The smooth-skating defenseman did make his first opening night roster - "a dream come true" - but it didn't last long. After a so-so camp, Koekkoek was scratched the first week, then sent to AHL Syracuse, where he spent the second half of the season.
Now, Koekkoek enters a make-or-break season, at least with the Lightning. He signed a "show-me," one-year, $800,000 deal this summer, and faces extensive competition on the blueline, which is at least eight-deep. Touted defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev, 19, acquired in the Jonathan Drouin trade, will be given every chance to make the team.
Koekkoek, who overcame three shoulder surgeries to make the NHL, knows he's in another fight.
"I've got something to prove," Koekkoek said. "I was in Syracuse last year, that's not where I wanted to be. I thought I did that in the (AHL) playoffs, I showed that I had something to prove."
That stint in Syracuse may end up being a turning point for Koekkoek, who will be one of the more intriguing players to watch as Tampa Bay opens its preseason schedule Tuesday against Carolina at Amalie Arena. It was in Syracuse where general manager Steve Yzerman said he saw Koekkoek mature and evolve as a defenseman. Always a gifted skater and puck mover, Koekkoek was put in more of a shutdown defensive role. He played on the penalty kill, as well as the power play. He logged 20-22 minutes a night.
"I think it was tough at first for him to get sent down," Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx said. "But he wants to get better. He's the type of guy that's not afraid to do what we're telling him, to stay on the ice longer, to work on his game.
"Obviously for us, with a young group of defensemen, he had a lot of ice time, he was put in every situation, power play, PK, at the end of the game when the game was on the line. I think he gained a lot of confidence. He just got to come here and play a simple game, use his skills to get the puck out of the zone and especially his speed."
Koekkoek still hopes to play his game, moving the puck and using his speed. But he also realizes how much of an emphasis the Lightning put on defense, especially in the second-half surge that nearly led them to make the playoffs last year. If Koekkoek can't protect the Lightning net, make good decisions in his own zone, there will be plenty of others in camp that will.
"Coach stressed in our opening day meeting that we've got to be a top-5, top-10 team in defense," Koekkoek said. "So that's how we're going to win the Stanley Cup. That's what I'm going to keep working on."
Fox Sports color analyst Brian Engblom, a Stanley Cup winning defenseman, said Koekkoek is going through the kind of adjustments that, in a lot of cases, have to be made for players to stick in the NHL. That even includes a No. 10 overall pick like Koekkoek was in 2012.
"You go back 40 years, every year they're all these players coming out of junior or college, and in the first few years pro, they want to be the same player that they were before they became pro," Engblom said. "Come hell or high water, 'This is who I am.' Other players - and I was one of them - you'll find out what your niche is. This is your spot, this is what you need to do.
"Are you going to do it or not? Otherwise you're not going to play here. You can choose to go to another team, say, 'Get me out of here, or choose to fit in. Slater is in that spot right now. He knows he's looking at the six spot (on the blueline) right now. It's tougher this year because of Sergachev being here. It'll be really interesting to see what his development is this year. I don't know if he's going to be that guy, I don't know that he's not. It's strictly a wait and see."
Yzerman said he's comfortable carrying eight defenseman on his roster to start the season. He points out most teams need at least eight to get through injuries over the course of the year. Either way, Koekkoek is entering his biggest audition, both for the Lightning (and potentially other teams).
"I'm still 23, still have a lots of ice in front of me," Koekkoek said. "We'll see what happens."