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Lightning asking more from Mikhail Sergachev with Ryan McDonagh’s departure

Sergachev is coming off his best season and continues to grow. Now, he will slot in right behind Victor Hedman on the left side.
With Ryan McDonagh gone, Mikhail Sergachev (98) will slot in right behind Victor Hedman among Lightning left-side defensemen.
With Ryan McDonagh gone, Mikhail Sergachev (98) will slot in right behind Victor Hedman among Lightning left-side defensemen. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 5|Updated Jul. 6

TAMPA — The departure of veteran Ryan McDonagh — traded to the Predators Sunday to get salary-cap relief — leaves a large hole in the Lightning defense corps.

In explaining how the team will restructure its blue line, general manager Julien BriseBois said it will expect Mikhail Sergachev to play a bigger role with McDonagh gone.

“And he’s ready and ripe for those responsibilities,” BriseBois said.

The 24-year-old Sergachev’s all-around game has grown steadily over his five seasons with the Lightning, and he is coming off a playoff run in which he showed his potential to become an elite two-way defenseman.

With McDonagh gone, Sergachev will slot in right behind Victor Hedman among left-side defensemen.

Sergachev and McDonagh do possess different games, however. McDonagh was a lockdown defender, the team’s top shot-blocker and an anchor of the team’s penalty-kill unit.

Sergachev is more of a Hedman clone, steady on defense but consistently looking to push the puck up ice into the offensive zone. Sergachev came out of juniors as an offensive-minded defenseman, and the Lightning had to work with him early on to round out the defensive side of his game.

Head coach Jon Cooper remembers the team having to break Sergachev out of the habit of playing with just one hand on his stick, telling him he wouldn’t be the two-way player he could be until he used both hands.

But now, Sergachev has become a strong defensive player. He’s one of the Lightning’s most aggressive checkers in his own zone and has learned the discipline needed to protect his own net by making reads, positioning and blocking shots.

The latter especially stands out. Sergachev had seven blocked shots in the Lightning’s overtime loss to Colorado in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, when he played 32:50 because of an injury to defenseman Erik Cernak. Sergachev averaged 22:17 of ice time in the postseason, just behind McDonagh’s 22:26 and Hedman’s 24:40.

In the Cup final, Sergachev averaged 2.83 blocked shots a game. It wasn’t an anomaly. He exceeded his career averages for blocked shots in both the regular season (1.57) and postseason (1.82).

That part of his game surely has benefitted from Sergachev playing with McDonagh, who blocked three shots a game this postseason.

“He’s always been completely selfless,” Lightning assistant Rob Zettler said earlier this year of McDonagh. “He’s shown the Sergachevs and the (Erik) Cernaks the commitment it takes to win in this league. And as coaches, you can talk about it all you want, but until you see someone doing it, and know it and feel it and know what it’s like to do it, that’s a big deal.”

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Ten of Sergachev’s 42 blocked shots this postseason came on the penalty kill, and he played more shorthanded minutes than ever before. He will see more ice time there next season if he fills McDonagh’s role alongside Cernak in the team’s top penalty-killing defense pair. McDonagh led the Lightning in short-handed minutes (3:15 a game), while Sergachev was third among defensemen (2:05).

Sergachev also quarterbacks the Lightning’s second power-play unit, so the team will have to figure out how to manage his minutes, but his youth and determination helps. Sergachev will have to continue to improve in his consistency, however. His physicality sometimes lands him in the penalty box, and he has struggled protecting the puck, which has led to turnovers and odd-man rushes.

Even with added contributions from Sergachev, the Lightning will look different along the blue line without McDonagh. BriseBois promised more clarity in the coming days.

Re-signing unrestricted free agent Jan Rutta, who played on the right side next to Hedman but also has left-side experience, would seem to become more of a priority. Rutta’s cap hit was just $1.3 million last season. Otherwise, the defense depth, especially on the left side, is thin. Sean Day, who played two games with the Lightning last season, is the only returning left-shot defenseman with experience. Fredrik Claesson, who played nine games for the Lightning last season but none after Feb. 1, is an unrestricted free agent.

The Lightning also must also must prioritize re-signing Sergachev and Cernak, who both become restricted free agents after next season. Dealing McDonagh allows the Lightning to pursue those extensions sooner than later, BriseBois said.

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