Wednesday, February 21, 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."

 
Comments
Lightning claims Gabriel Dumont off waivers

Lightning claims Gabriel Dumont off waivers

The Lightning got Gabriel Dumont back.Dumont, 27, was claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay on Wednesday. The veteran forward will likely be reassigned to AHL Syracuse, but could get a callup to help with faceoffs down the stretch.The Lightning lost Dumon...
Updated: 4 minutes ago
Ryan Callahan regaining his confidence for Lightning

Ryan Callahan regaining his confidence for Lightning

When the Lightning put wing Ryan Callahan back on the power play a month ago, there were many reasons.With Ondrej Palat suffering a lower-body injury Jan. 20, Tampa Bay needed a replacement who was fearless in front of the net, and a relentless puck ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Nikita Kucherov’s trick shot sends Lightning past Capitals

Nikita Kucherov’s trick shot sends Lightning past Capitals

WASHINGTON — There was some lighthearted debate in the Lightning dressing room Tuesday night about whether the latest dazzling breakaway move by Nikita Kucherov was a deliberate fake or a slip off the stick.Some teammates playfully gave the All...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Could Detroit’s Mike Green be next domino to fall at deadline?

Could Detroit’s Mike Green be next domino to fall at deadline?

The Red Wings have started wheeling and dealing, shipping goalie Petr Mrazek to the Flyers for a package of conditional draft picks.That has shifted focus to a potential Lightning target, Red Wings defenseman Mike Green, who is expected to be moved b...
Published: 02/20/18
Trade rumors can weigh on NHL players as deadline approaches

Trade rumors can weigh on NHL players as deadline approaches

WASHINGTON — Tyler Johnson was as good as gone.Or so it seemed.The scuttlebutt around last year's trade deadline was that the Lightning center could be the piece headed elsewhere to land a top-four defenseman. Maybe Nashville? St. Louis?Then th...
Published: 02/19/18
Better ‘D’ starts at home with Lightning

Better ‘D’ starts at home with Lightning

TAMPA – The Lightning still might land that top tier defenseman it certainly needs by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. But if that player was wearing a Tampa Bay sweater Saturday, would the outcome against the Devils have been any different?The Ligh...
Published: 02/19/18
Rumor mill: What Lightning might do at trade deadline

Rumor mill: What Lightning might do at trade deadline

Reports and rumors involving the Lightning leading up to the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 26:Feb. 17A smaller move could pay big dividendsIf you look at the history of recent Stanley Cup champions, their pivotal moves were subtle, not splashy, the Time...
Published: 02/19/18
Devils’ Wood gets 2 games for boarding Namestnikov

Devils’ Wood gets 2 games for boarding Namestnikov

Devils forward Miles Wood was suspended two games without pay for his boarding penalty Saturday night against Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov during the second period of the Devils 4-3 victory.The hit knocked Namestnikov into the boards ...
Published: 02/18/18
Updated: 02/19/18
Flashy trades not always the smartest moves

Flashy trades not always the smartest moves

TAMPA — When it comes to the trade deadline, everyone wants the big names. They dream of blockbusters.Lightning fans would love Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson or Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Maybe even Rangers wing Rick Nash.But if you ...
Published: 02/17/18
Updated: 02/18/18
Dotchin working on ‘inconsistencies’

Dotchin working on ‘inconsistencies’

TAMPA — Lightning D Jake Dotchin was scratched Saturday against the Devils, making it the fifth time in six games that he did not play."Obviously the playing time is down a bit," Dotchin said after the morning skate. "I just got to keep working...
Published: 02/17/18
Updated: 02/18/18