BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Lightning decided what to do with Slater Koekkoek.
On Friday, the final day of the defenseman's conditioning stint with AHL Syracuse, Tampa Bay traded Koekkoek and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick to the Blackhawks for defenseman Jan Rutta and a 2019 seventh-round pick.
Koekkoek, the Lightning's first-round draft pick in 2012 (10th overall), had a great showing in the 2016 playoffs, but then the Lightning got better faster than he did.
"We had better players come in," general manager Julien BriseBois said. "(Mikhail) Sergachev came in, (Ryan) McDonagh came in, (Erik) Cernak came in. Every time someone came in, he was pushed further down the depth chart."
Sergachev came to the Lightning in June 2017 from the Canadiens in the Jonathan Drouin trade. McDonagh came from the Rangers in a trade last season. And Cernak, acquired in February 2017 from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade, was called up Nov. 12 when Anton Stralman was out with an injury and played his way into the lineup.
BriseBois, who saw four of the five games Koekkoek played after being sent to the AHL on Dec. 29, said Koekkoek is a better player than he was in that 2016 playoff run, and a better player even than he was in his last appearance with the Lightning, Nov. 19 against the Predators.
But Koekkoek lost his roster spot to Cernak.
Koekkoek did not ask for a trade. BriseBois said he recently said he wanted to play for the Lightning. But the move to Chicago should give Koekkoek, 24, a better shot at being an NHL regular.
Rutta, 28, joined the Blackhawks in 2017 after coming to the NHL from playing in his native Czech Republic. Rutta, 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, has played 80 NHL games over two seasons. He had 26 points (eight goals) in 23 games this season with the Blackhawks before being waived and sent to AHL Rockford on Dec. 14. In eight games with Rockford, Rutta had four points (one goal) and was minus-2. He missed Rockford's past three with an injury.
The @TBLightning have acquired defenseman Jan Rutta, along with a seventh-round draft pick in 2019, from the @NHLBlackhawks in exchange for defenseman Slater Koekkoek and a fifth-round pick in 2019.Rutta is expected to report to the #SyrCrunch. https://t.co/oq1q0qXaww— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 11, 2019
Rutta will report to Syracuse, where he was not expected to play tonight at Utica.
"We like how (Rutta) played in Chicago both last season and when we played in Chicago earlier this season," BriseBois said. "We're going to need at least eight defensemen if we're going to have a nice long playoff run."
Rutta offers two basic things that Koekkoek didn't: He has already cleared waivers, and he is a right-shot defenseman.
Trading Koekkoek and keeping Rutta in the AHL means the Lightning has a roster spot for forward J.T. Miller to come off injured reserve. Coach Jon Cooper had said he hoped Miller, who is recovering from an upper-body injury, would play on the three-game road trip that begins tonight against the Sabres. Tampa Bay will be able to carry the 14 forwards and seven defenseman it currently has, which is a makeup Cooper and BriseBois like.
The move also evens out the righties and lefties on defense at four and four, rather than the five and three the Lightning had.
Rutta played seven seasons in the Czech league before signing a one-year deal with Chicago. The Blackhawks re-signed him to a one-year deal for this season, worth $2.250 million.
BriseBois said he made the trade for this season but this is a chance to get to know Rutta and what he can bring to the organization.
This doesn't affect anything the Lightning might do before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. BriseBois will continue to look for opportunities to improve the organization.