TAMPA — The Lightning are making some changes at the blue line. After rotating through every option through the first month, the team found a set of pairs it liked and has mostly stuck with it.
Injuries, however, necessitate change, and the team lost defensemen in back-to-back games this week.
Jan Rutta needs a couple of weeks before the team will know his return timeline. There isn’t an update on Ryan McDonagh, who left Thursday’s game after blocking a shot, but he was using a knee scooter at his and Alex Killorn’s fundraiser on Friday.
Change means opportunity.
For Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn, who have been watching games from press boxes, it means getting into the lineup. For Cameron Gaunce, it means a call up from AHL Syracuse Friday in case of another injury.
For the Lightning’s 21-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, it means a move to the top pair with Victor Hedman.
“To get put on the ice, the coach has to trust you,” said Todd Richards, the Lightning assistant coach responsible for defensemen. “And what he’s done in his own end is earn the coaches’ trust.”
Sergachev played on the top pair with Hedman early in the season, as the Lightning searched for the right fit. He said he was a little shy in those early outings. The coaches wanted to see him improve in his own end.
Since then, general manager Julien BriseBois has called Sergachev the team’s most improved player. Richards noted his improvement in four-on-four situations and on the penalty kill.
On Thursday, Sergachev played against the Penguins’ top lines led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the league’s most dangerous centers.
He wants that job.
For the last two years, Sergachev has talked about wanting to prove himself and earn the bigger role Tampa Bay has envisioned since acquiring him for Jonathan Drouin in a June 2017 trade with Montreal that made headlines across hockey. At age 18 with four games of NHL experience, the Lightning expected him to take time to grow into the hype. Coach Jon Cooper has stressed the need for development time for a defenseman, saying you can’t hide in that position.
In his third season, he’s fulfilling that promise.
Sergachev has made a point to increase his physicality this season. He isn’t a big bruiser of a player, but he uses his 6-foot-3 215-pound frame to separate players from the puck.
Big hits like one he put on Sabres star Jack Eichelon Dec. 31, are fun to watch, but sometimes the smaller hits are just as effective.
“He’s getting into guys,” Richards said. “It may not the one where he knocks somebody down, but he gets into somebody and knocks him off balance and makes a play out of it or jars the puck loose.”
Watching Sergachev go into the corners with players like Vegas’ Ryan Reeves or San Jose’s Patrick Marleau stands out to Richards. Sometimes he doesn’t even pick up on the little plays Sergachev makes with his body until he watches the video later.
Sergachev watched a lot of video. He observed how players would get their position first before trying to make a play.
“Just block a guy from the puck, his hands or himself and give yourself a chance to play the puck,” said Sergachev, who is averaging 4.5 hits the last two games.
That physicality, combined with better positioning and decision-making improved Sergachev’s play in the defensive zone.
When the Lightning declined to re-sign Dan Girardi, who had been Hedman’s partner for two years, this summer, Sergachev seemed prime for the chance at his spot. Then the team brought in free agent Kevin Shattenkirk, a consistent 40-point scorer as recently as 2017.
Rutta stepped up, and his simple game complemented Hedman’s playmaking for a couple of months.
Sergachev is a very different player. He is more similar to Hedman with strong skating and offensive instincts. The first time around playing together, he may have deferred to the No. 1 too much.
“I tried to get him the puck all the time and sometimes I put him in bad spots,” Sergachev said. “Playing with him, you just have to play your game and play off each other, help each other, not just letting him have the puck all the time.”
Now, Sergachev is more likely to make a play of his own. On Thursday, Hedman set him up with a good pass at the point and Sergachev fired on net. He settled the puck and aimed for the low glove, putting the Lightning on the board.
With Rutta out indefinitely, this is Sergachev’s chance to prove himself on the Lightning’s top defensive pair.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.