Friday, September 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Is Mikhail Sergachev, who debuts with Lightning at Wednesday camp, ready for the NHL?

BRANDON — When defenseman Mikhail Sergachev was taken ninth overall by the Canadiens in the 2016 NHL draft, a horde of Montreal media surrounded him for his first news conference.

That would be overwhelming for most teenagers, especially a Russian who had only been in North America a couple of years.

But Sergachev, 19, stole the show.

When asked if he was ready for this, Sergachev's response was quick and dry: "Is Montreal ready for me?"

"He embraced it," recalled Marc Dumont, managing editor for Canadiens web site "Habs Eyes on the Prize."

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Mikhail Sergachev poses for a portrait after being selected ninth overall by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Tampa Bay is ready for Sergachev, the prized prospect the Lightning acquired from Montreal in the blockbuster Jonathan Drouin trade two weeks ago. Fans, as well as some Lightning staff, will get their first up-close look Wednesday when he arrives at Tampa Bay's development camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon (practice begins at 9:45 a.m.). GM Steve Yzerman still hasn't met Sergachev, who many think can grow into a cornerstone, top-pairing defenseman alongside Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman.

Who is Sergachev? He's a late bloomer, having not started skating until he was 9. He's also a quick learner, his largely self-taught grasp of the English language shown in his sense of humor and infectious personality. He's a defenseman with all the tools, from size (6 feet 3, 215 pounds), skill, skating ability and shot, a big reason why his junior team (Windsor, Ontario Hockey League) won the Memorial Cup last month.

What we don't know about Sergachev is whether he will open the season in the Lightning lineup, a burning question that will be a hot topic through training camp.

"I think he's ready to play in the NHL," said Trevor Letowski, Sergachev's coach at Windsor. "I really do."

Disinterested at first

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Mikhail Sergachev skates during a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes in October in Montreal.

The first time Sergachev tried hockey, he didn't like it.

He grew up a swimmer in Nizhnekamsk, Russia, where his parents, Alexander and Ludmilla, worked in an oil and gas plant. Sergachev started skating when he was 9, late by most prospects standards. A father of a girl in his class suggested, because of Sergachev's size, he try playing hockey.

Sergachev tried holding the boards to stay on his feet.

"The kids teased him a lot," said Michelle Reid, who with her husband, Brian, were Sergachev's billet family in Windsor the past two years. "But he's a gifted kid. It just came to him. He got better and better, and now look at him."

Reid said Sergachev has always been a quick study. When Sergachev arrived from Russia as a 17-year-old, he barely knew a word of English. Fortunately, fellow Russian Daniil Vertiy was also living with the Reids, and could help communicate.

But Sergachev, whose nickname is "Misha," tirelessly worked at learning the language. They started with Google Translate, but he'd also watch videos, meeting with a teacher once a week during the season.

"The kid absorbs everything," Brian says. "Like a sponge."

Courtesy of Michelle Reid

Pictured, from left, Brian Reid, Mikhail Sergachev, Sergachev's dad, Alexander, and Michelle Reid. The Reids were Sergachev's host family in Windsor, Ont.

It's like when Sergachev tried to teach himself how to play the guitar, or, more recently golf. Then, there was the day Muhammad Ali died. Sergachev never heard of the iconic boxer. But Sergachev, who loves watching history shows, went to his bedroom and caught a biography of Ali. "He came out and said, 'Wow, he's quite a big deal,' " Michelle said.

Sergachev is very structured, waking up (around 9:30 a.m.) the same time every day, his workouts and meals part of a meticulous routine (including chicken parm as his pregame meals). "You can set a watch by him," Michelle says.

It shows how driven Sergachev is to reach his goal of playing in the NHL.

"From day one, when he came here, he said, 'I'm going to The Show,' '' Brian said.

Said Michelle: "That's his dream."

'This is my time'

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Mikhail Sergachev speaks with Team Russia teammate Sergei Zborovskiy after defeating Sweden to win the bronze medal during the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

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Mikhail Sergachev of Team Russia looks to play the puck during the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship semifinal game against the United States.

Sergachev believes his dream is close to reality.

After a cup of coffee in the league last season, playing in four games with the Canadiens, Sergachev hopes to be here to stay.

"This is my time to play in the NHL," he said.

Ask anyone who had to play against Sergachev in juniors, and they hope he's not coming back.

"He's big, he's strong, he's tough, he's got a rocket of a shot," said Zach Gallant, a Red Wings draft pick who played for Peterborough. "He does everything."

Letowski said Sergachev has come a long way in his two junior seasons. He's always been gifted offensively, boasting the kind of skill and skating ability that he can control a game, and lead a rush. But there were some bad habits early on, like not being as engaged away from the puck. By this spring, he was one of the best players in the Memorial Cup tournament, double-shifting against opponent's top lines. That includes thwarting Lightning prospects Taylor Raddysh and Anthony Cirelli, who were on the Erie team that lost to Windsor in the final.

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Mikhail Sergachev of the Windsor Spitfires celebrates winning the championship game of the Memorial Cup against the Erie Otters 4-3 in May at the WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ont.

Sergachev finished with 43 points (10 goals, 33 assists) in 50 games, with one OHL GM telling Canada's TSN that he may have more offensive upside than Hedman.

"He's an awesome d-man," Raddysh said of Sergachev. "He's good offensive instincts, is strong defensively. When I was out there against him, I always had my eye out for him."

All eyes will be on Sergachev during development camp and September's training camp. Hedman said he plans to help mentor Sergachev. "It'll be fun to see where he stands and see what kind of player he is," Hedman said. "From what I've heard, he's a grade-A prospect."

Yzerman said he believes Sergachev has the strength to play in the NHL. But the Lightning has to weigh whether he'll earn enough of a role to where its worth keeping him on the roster full-time. The only other option is sending him back to Windsor.

"We don't want to play him seven, eight minutes a night," Yzerman said. "We want him playing regularly. Let's let the situation play out. But he'll be given the opportunity to make the team."

Sergachev will also get to make an impression on those who still consider him a mystery.

Said Michelle Reid: "You're getting a gem."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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