TAMPA — Ask around the Lightning dressing room about rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and a few buzzwords continue to pop up about the 19-year-old Russian.
Bold. Poised. Skilled. Confident. Mature.
Those attributes are easily spotted on the ice, where Sergachev has blossomed into a top-four defenseman on the league’s top team. The five winning goals and 23 points are more than anyone expected when Sergachev was acquired in the June Jonathan Drouin blockbuster trade with the Canadiens, who visit Amalie Arena on Thursday.
But what’s just as striking is how Sergachev, three years removed from a life-changing move to North America, has also found a comfort zone off the ice.
He’s living on his own for the first time, settling into a two-bedroom apartment downtown. He’s cooking (mostly salmon and rice), and cleaning (he’s a known neat freak). He’s affecting the community, whether it is connecting with a cancer patient or helping needy families grocery shop on Friday. At night, he’s taking law classes online from a Russian university; he’s two years into a four-year degree. Sergachev is inspired by his mother, Ludmilla, a financial manager in Russia with two degrees.
"I wanted to do the same," he said.
Sergachev is hosting Ludmilla and his dad, Alexander, this month. He’ll likely show them local spots he has checked out, including Busch Gardens, Universal Orlando and Bern’s dessert room.
"He just loves it here," said Brian Reid, who hosted Sergachev for two years while the defenseman played juniors for Windsor in Ontario.
Brian and his wife, Michelle, recall that three years ago Sergachev arrived at their Windsor home a nervous teenager who knew no English.
Two weeks ago, it was Sergachev’s turn to host them in Tampa. He took them shopping and to dinner, and invited the couple to his new pad.
"I don’t think we’re really surprised," Michelle said. "It’s more of a joy to see his life come together. (The trade) worked out better for him, for sure. If he went to Montreal, who knows if he’d still be there or sent back to junior. His life would be very, very different. We talked about that with him, too.
"The trade was definitely a shock for him, and he had very mixed feelings about it. But had that trade never happened, he’d never have these experiences he’s having now. The trade was a blessing for him."
Warren Rychel will be on the Windsor Spitfires bus or in the dressing room when a player will yell:
" ‘Sergy’ scored again!"
"No way!" Rychel will reply.
Rychel, general manager of the Spitfires, didn’t expect to see Sergachev back in juniors this season. But 23 points in his first 35 games?
"I didn’t expect him to excel this much this fast," Rychel said. "The sky is the limit for him."
Rychel, who played eight seasons in the NHL in the 1980s and ’90s, said that among the players from outside North America that he has had in Windsor, Sergachev was the fastest to adjust to the North American game, life and language. He was a sponge, ambitious and with an infectious personality.
"We watched him in juniors," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said, "And you think, ‘He looks big enough. He looks strong enough. Can he compete with the (NHL) guys? Can he handle the play?’
"He’s earning his ice time. We’re a better team right now because he’s in the lineup."
The Lightning could have sent Sergachev back to juniors by his 10th NHL game this season to stop his entry-level clock from kicking in. Once Sergachev plays his 40th game, the Lightning will forfeit the conditional second-round draft pick they also got from the Canadiens in the trade.
From day one of training camp, Sergachev, the ninth overall draft pick in 2016, said he was in the NHL to stay.
"It was not cockiness; it was self-confidence," captain Steven Stamkos said.
Though the Lightning eased Sergachev in, playing him with calming veteran Anton Stralman and limiting his ice time and defensive-zone starts, he’s earning more trust. He has logged more than 20 minutes twice in the past six games. He’s a staple on the second power-play unit, and his 23 points entered Wednesday more than any Canadiens player.
"Any time you trade a player of Jonathan’s quality, there’s some pressure on the guy that comes in," Stamkos said. "But you wouldn’t know it talking to Sergy. He’s got the demeanor of a veteran. He’s got the poise and patience with the puck of a veteran."
When Sergachev joined the team at a Christmas party at the Children’s Cancer Center in Tampa a few weeks back, he formed a connection with the patient at his table.
The kid, on palliative care, couldn’t stop smiling.
"I gave him a jersey as a present, and it didn’t have a last name," Sergachev said. "I said, ‘Why can’t I put his last name on there? It would be so much cooler.’ So that’s what I did."
Michelle Reid isn’t surprised, having seen Sergachev make hospital visits in juniors.
"He’s got such a big heart," Reid said. "We always used to tell him, ‘Just remember those kids look up to you the way you looked up to (Alex Ovechkin).’ You see he understands and appreciates that."
You can see that during nearly every warmup, at home and on the road. Sergachev, typically the last player on the ice, will flip a puck to a Lightning fan in the stands on his way off.
"It’s the NHL. There’s probably a million kids that want to be here, in this spot," Sergachev said. It’s great. I like this life."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
vs. Canadiens, 7:30, Amalie Arena
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 970-AM