Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek still trying to stick

CALGARY, Alberta — Defenseman Slater Koekkoek is happy to be back in the NHL.

"That goes without being said," he added, smiling.

Koekkoek, 22, just doesn't know how long this stint will last. It has been a trying season for Koekkoek, who has bounced between the NHL and AHL Syracuse several times, including twice in the past week.

"It's tough mentally," Koekkoek said. "But everyone has tough mental times, even guys that stick here all year."

Many thought the 2012 first-round draft pick would have a chance to stick with the Lightning this season. Koekkoek blossomed in last year's playoffs, appearing in the final 10 games and looking like he belonged in the NHL.

But after making his first opening-night roster, Koekkoek has appeared in 18 of the Lightning's 30 games, including Wednesday's game against the Flames. When Koekkoek told reporters in Syracuse last week that he was upset to get sent down, it made headlines. Of course he was upset. What player wouldn't be?

But that doesn't mean Koekkoek is disappointed with how the organization is developing him. He has waited this long, dealing with three shoulder surgeries since getting picked 10th overall in 2012. Being patient is never easy.

"I wanted to be in the NHL four years ago when I got drafted," Koekkoek said. "It doesn't happen like that. We have a good team here, and that's what happens.

"But I'm here now."

Koekkoek gets the business part of his situation. Among the team's top seven defensemen, Koekkoek is the only one on a two-way contract, meaning he can get reassigned to the AHL as many times as needed without having to clear waivers. The same can't be said for Nikita Nesterov, who has struggled this season.

"We're happy with Slater; we're happy with 'Nesty,' " associate coach Rick Bowness said. "There's only so many spots out there, so many minutes. It's not like we're down on Slater at all. Nesty has played well when he's played, and so has Slater. Unfortunately, one of them has to sit every now and then. That's part of being a young player. You get your chance, you've go to be ready to go."

You can argue that Koekkoek has deserved more of a shot, especially on a Lightning team that has been bad too often in its zone. It's not like Koekkoek has been perfect, but neither has Nesterov. Or anyone else.

Koekkoek (6 feet 2, 193 pounds) doesn't have the size or physical presence of Luke Witkowski (6-2, 217), and he doesn't have the power-play experience of Nesterov. Koekkoek's strengths are his skating and puck movement, the latter of which is what the Lightning needs to see more of.

"We want to encourage him to get the puck and go," Bowness said. "We don't want to spend any time in our zone. If Slater can just get that puck and go with it, there's a certain level of confidence that has to come from doing that. And the more he plays, the more you'll see that. It's hard being in and out of the lineup. We get all of that."

Koekkoek insists he's confident and comfortable on the ice. But how can he maintain at rhythm by not playing consistently? Brian Engblom, a Stanley Cup-winning defenseman and now the Lightning's color analyst, said he was in the same situation as a player. The key is confidence and efficiency.

"(Koekkoek) hasn't been able to get over the feeling of, 'If I don't play well, then I'm going to be out of the lineup,' " Engblom said. "It's a huge hurdle to get over, to be that guy and know 'I had a bad game, I know I'm still playing.' When he gets to that point? I don't know.

"Sometimes he plays himself into the lineup; sometimes he plays himself out of the lineup. On most nights it might be one or two shifts, one or two bad reads, because the coach has another guy like Nesterov or Witkowski. It may not be that Koekkoek played poorly, but it is that marginal to where he wasn't spectacular enough."

 
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