Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning approaches decision time for Mikhail Sergachev

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mikhail Sergachev had dinner with his host family from juniors Monday.

With the Lightning in Detroit to play the Red Wings, the Reid family made the trek across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, where Sergachev arrived from Russia two years ago. That’s where Sergachev learned English in four months, where he blossomed into a top-10 NHL draft pick and where he led the Windsor Spitfires to the championship of the Canadian Hockey League in May.

"It was the best time of my life," Sergachev said. "But now, it’s … "

Better? Sergachev, 19, has been a regular in the Lightning lineup. Tuesday, the rookie defenseman played one of his best games in a 5-4 shootout loss to the Devils. At dinner the night before, Sergachev thanked the Reids for all their help, saying he wouldn’t be where he is without them. But he’s ready for the next step in his career.

"He said, ‘I’m not coming back,’ " Brian Reid said.

Sergachev shouldn’t go back to juniors. It’s best for him, and the Lightning, if he stays in the NHL. The Lightning has to decide as early as this weekend whether Sergachev will stick in the NHL or return to juniors for another season.

RELATED: Mikhail Sergachev makes opening roster.

There’s a lot to consider. Tampa Bay has until Sergachev’s 10th game, which would be Tuesday in Carolina, to send him back to Windsor or burn one year of his affordable entry-level deal.

If Sergachev plays 40 or more games with the Lightning, he gets one year closer to free agency. Plus, the Lightning wouldn’t receive the conditional second-round draft pick it got from Montreal along with Sergachev when it traded Jonathan Drouin to the Canadiens in the offseason.

Windsor general manager Warren Rychel said Sergachev is "ahead of the curve" among junior-age players and in the next few years, "his skill is going to go through the roof."

"It’s all about Tampa Bay winning hockey games right now," Rychel said. "Until I get a call, I assume he’s pretty much gone."

Sergachev has the size, skills and skating ability to play in the NHL. It’s telling that just 11 games into his NHL career, Sergachev has already earned his way into the Lightning lineup, averaging about 12 minutes heading into tonight’s game against the Blue Jackets. Coach Jon Cooper trusts the rookie enough to often have him run point on the second power play and give him a shift in Tuesday’s overtime.

RELATED: Mikhail Sergachev: ‘I’m not afraid to make mistakes’.

The Lightning is on a roll, 5-1-1 to start the season. In an ideal world, Sergachev could play at AHL Syracuse, but he’s too young. That leaves as his options juniors, which he has outgrown, and the Lightning, with whom he is still finding his way on a Stanley Cup contender.

"There’s a lot of factors," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said. "For Mikhail as an individual, No. 1 it’s important that young players play. How many minutes is he going to play? How many games? From a team perspective, we’re trying to win. We’re trying to make the playoffs. Are we a better team with him or not? You weigh all of those things and watch over the course of time, is he headed in the right direction? So far, he’s done fine.

"We know the dates that are significant to the games played. Ultimately that’s not going to make the decision. We’ll do what we feel is right for Mikhail and what is right for the team, whether that’s at nine games, 20 games or 22 games."

Sergachev has shown he’s one of the team’s top-six defensemen, and it helps that he’s paired with veteran Anton Stralman, who says "poise" sums up the rookie. Take Sergachev’s role in Tuesday’s power-play goal by Ondrej Palat. After getting the puck at the blue line, he shuffled to his right, drawing defenders to him and creating not only a passing lane but an opening for Palat in the slot. That kind of instinct you can’t teach.

Sergachev is tough, too. When he, while with his head down, got leveled to the ice Monday by former Lightning defenseman Luke Witkowski, he popped right back up. "He went out the next shift and said, ‘Coach put me back out there.’ That shows a little bit of the character," Cooper said.

Cooper notes that Sergachev doesn’t shy away from scrums, showing an edge if an opponent takes liberties with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. "He’s not afraid to stir the hornet’s nest," Cooper said.

There’s his maturity. Sergachev is coachable, willing to learn from the staff as well as veteran teammates. He’s one of the last players on the ice in practice and warmups, often tossing pucks to fans. Rychel said that in his 10 years he has been in Windsor, Sergachev was the fastest foreign-born player to acclimate and embrace the culture/language.

"He was a guy all the kids gravitated towards," Rychel said. "The kids wanted to hang out with him. He was a leader."

If Sergachev stays with the Lightning, there’s still going to be a learning curve and mistakes.

"You just don’t step into the league and play that position and say, ‘I’ve arrived. Where’s the Norris (Trophy)?’ " Cooper said, referring to the award for the NHL’s top defenseman.

Cooper used the Lightning’s 2016-17 Norris finalist, Victor Hedman, as an example of why you need patience with young defensemen. Hedman, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, said it took him a few hundred games to find his way.

"You let (Sergachev) know there are going to be ups and downs, there are games where you’re going to have to keep it simple and play it safe," Hedman said. "And he’s done a good job so far."

Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin said Sergachev will be challenged physically by a lot of teams and it’ll get tougher when opponents get a better read on him. But he acts like he belongs.

"Boy, he plays with a lot of confidence. You can just see it," Potvin said. "He’s going to get beat. He’s a rookie. But he’s got that good pass, good wrist shot. I’m very impressed."

He’s not the only one.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith

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