BRANDON — Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said he came to Lightning camp with the mentality he was going to make the team.
So it meant a lot for the 19-year-old Russian to find out Monday he will start the season with Tampa Bay, which opens Friday against Florida.
"It's huge for me," Sergachev said. "I don't know what to say."
Sergachev, acquired in the June Jonathan Drouin trade with Montreal, has impressed teammates and coaches all preseason.
"He deserves it," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He's gotten better as camp has gone on. It's fun to see."
How long Sergachev stays remains to be seen. The Lightning has until his 10th NHL game this season to send him back to juniors or have his entry-level contract kick in (putting him closer to free agency).
If Sergachev plays 40 games, the Lightning won't get the conditional 2018 second-round pick from Montreal. GM Steve Yzerman has said there's no rush with the decision.
"It could be nine games, 10 games, 40 games," Yzerman said.
Sergachev opened last season with Montreal but was sent back to Windsor after playing just three games. He feels more comfortable and confident this time.
"It's different this year," Sergachev said. "It's different people, a completely different organization. I wouldn't say it was easy to make the team, but they made it easy for me.
"My teammates and coaches and AHL coaches and staff, they helped me a lot."
Sergachev was paired with veteran defenseman Anton Stralman in the final three exhibition games, a sign the rookie could get a regular role. Tampa Bay has settled on its 23-man roster ahead of today's 5 p.m. deadline, with Cory Conacher reassigned to AHL Syracuse (as long as he passes through waivers today).
Coach Jon Cooper wants to ease expectations for Sergachev but recognizes his high ceiling.
"He's ahead of the curve in where most players are at his age," Cooper said. "And I really like that if he makes a mistake, and we talk to him about it, he goes out and tries to fix it."
Cooper noted Sergachev's "swag," how he's not afraid to make plays even if it sometimes gets him in trouble.
"You want that in guys, you want them to be able to say, 'I can do this,' " Cooper said. "Naturally you're going to get burned a few times, if it continues you have to sit him down, but I don't want to pull that away from the kid.
"I want to let the kid go and grow. But he's got to fall in line with our standards and our values and how we do things. And he's working at that, and that's what we really like about it."
And Cooper said he doesn't want to thwart Sergachev's creativity or aggressiveness.
"That's the one thing about swag, you can do some things," Cooper said.
"But you can't go on the side of stupidity and try to dangle through six guys, hold the puck on the line when three guys are coming at you. But he's got more aggressive in the zone, he goes into corners and competes. It's great. He's been a good add to our back end."
Slap shots: Tampa Bay will likely start with Tyler Johnson centering Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan, and Brayden Point back at center between Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde. … The Lightning is expected to carry eight defensemen but don't be surprised if one — like Andrej Sustr — is shopped. … Erik Condra (back surgery) is likely to start the season on injured reserve. Michael Bournival is also injured.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.