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Mikhail Sergachev earning trust – and more minutes with Lightning

The rookie defenseman played a career-high 21 minutes Tuesday against St. Louis
DIRK SHADD   |   Times  
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) celebrates his goal with his team as he returns to the bench after beating Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop (30),  during second period action at Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening (11/16/17).
DIRK SHADD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) celebrates his goal with his team as he returns to the bench after beating Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop (30), during second period action at Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening (11/16/17).
Published Dec. 14, 2017

Coyotes center Clayton Keller is very familiar with fellow rookie Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning defenseman.

They both were picked in the top-10 of the 2016 NHL Draft, Keller at No. 7 and Sergachev No. 9 to Montreal. They faced each other in three world junior tournaments, Keller with the United States, Sergachev with Russia.

Often times, Sergachev and Keller were matched up one-on-one. They likely will again tonight when the Lightning takes on Arizona.

"He's fast, he's smart with the puck, and good defensively," Keller said of Sergachev. "There's nothing really bad about his game. He's going to be a star defenseman in this league one day."

That could come sooner than later for Sergachev, 19, who has earned more trust and minutes from coaches, flourishing in a larger role. Sergachev logged a career-high 21 minutes, 30 seconds Tuesday against the best-in-the-west Blues, after playing 19:23 against Winnipeg.

The kid gloves are starting to come off.

"Guys earn their ice," coach Jon Cooper said. "Early on, he was new to the league, we kind of did the dip your toes in the water test with him to bring him along. But he's proven he just wants to jump in the pool and play. His knowledge of the game, his instincts are just growing with experience. That's what players need is the experience. He's earning his ice, and if he keeps playing the way he is, he's going to keep getting it."

Sergachev, acquired in the blockbuster Jonathan Drouin trade to Montreal in June, was very much an unknown going into the season. After making the team out of training camp, Cooper and his staff tried to put him in the best positions to succeed. They limited the times Sergachev would start a shift in a defensive zone faceoff. They partnered him with steady veteran Anton Stralman. They gave him a taste on the second power play, where Sergachev could utilize his elite offensive instincts, and shot.

Sergachev was allowed to play through his mistakes, and the Lightning has been rewarded. Sergachev leads Tampa Bay defensemen with 21 points (seven goals), seven points in his last eight games. Sergachev's 21 points are more than anyone on the Canadiens (Drouin has 17).

"It starts with the trust from the coaches and giving me a lot of confidence to make a play," Sergachev said. "I can create something and join the rush. I can just play my game and not think about anything else. If I make a mistake, I know I'm going to play the next shift."

Sergachev said you can watch all the video you want, but it's the experience that has helped improve his instincts. His comfort level is growing 34 games into his NHL career.

"You're not going to feel 100-percent, it's my first year," Sergachev said. "I'm trying to get more confident. I don't want to look like a rookie in this league."

So far, so good. There is an impressive crop of rookies this season, making for an interesting Calder Trophy race. Sergachev has kept an eye on his competition.

There's Vancouver's Brock Boeser: "He's a goal-scorer, has a hard accurate shot. Great skater."

There's the Islanders' Mathew Barzal: "He makes highlight reel plays every game. Dynamic player. Good all over the ice."

There's Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy: "He doesn't look like a rookie in this league. He's playing more than 20 minutes every game. Just competes hard. Great skill, great shot. He's smart. He's going to be a great NHL player."

Sounds a lot like Sergachev.

More notes from morning skate:

*Andrei Vasilevskiy will start for the Lightning. RW Ryan Callahan, who missed Tuesday's game with an undisclosed injury, participated in the morning skate and Cooper said he's "hopeful" he'll play.

*Looks like Slater Koekkoek will play again, appearing in six straight games for the first time this season. "When you play every once and a while and limited minutes, it's hard, but I'm grateful for every opportunity I've had," Koekkoek said. "It's always nice to get a feel for the puck and not be afraid to be able to pinch up in the rush or try to keep the puck in the zone," Koekkoek said.

*Expect D Andrej Sustr to be scratched, along with J.T. Brown (if Callahan is ready to go).

*Former Lightning coach Rick Tocchet is in his first year back as a head coach with Arizona, saying he's evolved a lot since his time in Tampa Bay (2008-10).  "I'm a lot more decisive in the way I want to play," Tocchet said. "Obviously you're going to ask your opinion of your inner circle, but I know the way I want to play. I'll tweak but am not going to change. In Tampa, I was probably a bit influenced, and that's something I really learned."

Tocchet noticed how much different a place the Lightning organization is in, starting with ownership in Jeff Vinik.

"They have a chance to compete for the Cup this year and the next 3-4 years," Tocchet said.