OTTAWA — The fight was the highlight. The fight and the GIF of Mikhail Sergachev taunting Sabres fans went miniviral.
But neither was the reason the Lightning defenseman should bookmark Tuesday’s win against Buffalo. The fight against defenseman Jake McCabe was an exception for Sergachev. As coach Jon Cooper said, Sergachev won’t make his career off that moment.
His hit on Sabres captain Jack Eichel that preceded the fight, however, along with his blocked shots and assist are the reasons for Sergachev to save that game. Those are the pieces that make up an all-around, two-way defenseman.
Asked about the Sabres game, Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk immediately expanded the time frame. He has seen that kind of play from Sergachev for the past few weeks, if not longer. General manager Julien BriseBois called Sergachev the Lightning’s most improved player over the past month.
“I’m more physical,” Sergachev, 21 and in his third full NHL season, said in summing up the change in his game. “I try to hit people, separate them from the puck. Last year and the year before, I was checking with my stick. I wasn’t physical enough.”
Sergachev has been showing off his puck skills and his skating for the past couple of years. Small plays such as catching up to and cutting off the Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki to retrieve the puck in the defensive zone in Thursday’s game aren’t new.
Now he’s adding more physicality to those plays. On his goal against the Wild on Dec. 5, Sergachev skated end to end, using his free arm to protect the puck on his stick as he moved through and around four Wild players.
Sergachev has also improved his hitting and positioning, raising his defensive game and turning into a two-way defenseman.
This doesn’t mean Sergachev’s highlight reel is about to overflow with massive hits. Tuesday’s hit on Eichel wasn’t an incredible one. Sergachev used his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame to lay out Eichel in open ice. It was the kind of hit that could be routine for a strong defenseman but hadn’t been for Sergachev.
His brand of physicality might be knocking the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov off the puck in open ice Dec. 14, a play not officially classified as a hit. It might be boxing out in front of the net, clearing out the low slot.
“I remember seeing him in Windsor (in juniors) a lot in his draft year (2015-16), and he was such a physical force,” BriseBois said. “We’re seeing that here. We knew he had that in him, and it’s nice now to see that flourish.”
Cooper has been hesitant to publicly critique Sergachev with specifics, positive or negative. He may not want to add pressure to a young defenseman who already has the pressure of being a ninth overall draft pick.
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In the past, the coach has highlighted Sergachev’s age and stressed the time it typically takes defensemen to develop in the NHL.
Defensemen often enter the league at an older age than forwards; they come through the AHL (as the Lightning’s Erik Cernak and Braydon Coburn did) or college (as McDonagh and Shattenkirk did). Victor Hedman started in the NHL at 19 and didn’t look like a second overall pick for the first couple of years.
“It’s taken (Sergachev) some time. It’s a tough position to play in this league, especially at such a young age,” Cooper said. “His defending down low has improved so much. Now you’re seeing him out on the penalty kill, and … he’s earned his ice (time). He’s really, really grown in this league and just become a rock back there for us.”
Sergachev wanted to earn that penalty kill time. He had been on the power play consistently, but a two-way defenseman plays on the penalty kill, too.
He wanted to shed the “offensive defenseman” moniker. Contributing offensively is an important part of Sergachev’s game, but too often that distinction carries the implication of defensive liability. He knows it limits his situational play.
Shattenkirk, another who carries the “offensive defenseman” label, called it a stigma, a term that becomes a highlighter on any defensive mistake.
“(Sergachev has) evolved to a great two-way defenseman,” Hedman said. “He’s an unbelievable talent offensively, we all know that, but the shot blocks, the hits, the way he plays responsibly in his own end is fun to watch. The sky’s the limit for this guy.”
Hedman called Sergachev a machine in the game against Buffalo. He had the hit, which turned into his first NHL fight (after which he motioned to the crowd, arms spread wide, a gesture that became a popular GIF image), but Sergachev also made a couple of good offensive plays and blocked two shots at the end.
He made a nice move at the blue line to set up Cedric Paquette, though the shot sailed wide, in the first period. Then he made a simple pass to Tyler Johnson that turned into a goal for Ondrej Palat. In the final minutes of the game, Sergachev blocked two shots, one with an outstretched hand that took him out of the game.
Shattenkirk said that game could be one Sergachev can go back to when things aren’t going as well.
“Know you’re fully capable of playing like that in this league,” Shattenkirk said. “That was always something for me as a young player in this league, there’s a lot of ups and downs because you’re hard on yourself. You have to remember there are some good things to reference and keep those positive plays.”
Sergachev is coming into the role he was projected for when Montreal drafted him in 2016 and when the Lightning traded for him the next summer. That’s not to say he is fully developed, but he’s progressing on that path.
“(He is a) top four (defenseman) all day long,” BriseBois said.