BRANDON — This time last year, it was Slater Koekkoek's job to lose.
Koekkoek, 23, a first-round pick in 2012, was coming off an impressive performance in the run to the Eastern Conference final. But while the smooth-skating defenseman did make his first opening night roster — "a dream come true" — it didn't last long. Koekkoek was a healthy scratch the first week, then sent to AHL Syracuse, where he would spend the second half of the season.
Now, Koekkoek could be on the outside looking in. He signed a "show-me" one-year, $800,000 deal this summer and faces the most competitive blueline battle in years. Touted defense prospect Mikhail Sergachev, 19, acquired in the Jonathan Drouin trade, will be given every chance to make the team.
This is a make-or-break year for Koekkoek, at least with the Lightning.
"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 tonight 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.
"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."
You can make the argument Koekkoek didn't get a consistent enough chance at the NHL in an up-and-down season, playing in 29 games with the Lightning and 48 in Syracuse. Koekkoek said it's important to get reps to develop that confidence. But he also realizes how much of an emphasis the Lightning puts on defense, especially in the second-half surge that nearly led it to make the playoffs. If Koekkoek can't protect the Lightning net and make good decisions in his own zone, there will be plenty of others in camp who will.
"The coach has to know when you go on the ice, you are reliable," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "He has to know what he's getting out of you. The rest of the game will come. We're counting on him to show us he's reliable defensively, and every chance he gets to use those wheels of his, 'Go.' "
Fox Sports color analyst Brian Engblom, a Stanley Cup-winning defenseman, said Koekkoek is going through the kind of evolution that, in a lot of cases, has to be made for players to stick in the NHL. As Bowness said, "some of the highest scorers in juniors become checkers in the National Hockey League."
"You go back 40 years, every year there'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."
Yzerman said he's comfortable carrying eight defensemen on the roster during the season, and Koekkoek is determined to be one of them.
"I'm still 23, still have a lots of ice in front of me," Koekkoek said. "We'll see what happens."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.