Is Now the Time for Lightning’s Koekkoek?

The Tampa Bay Lightning recalled defenseman Slater Koekkoek from the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch on Tuesday. The Lightning assigned defenseman Matt Taormina to Syracuse in a corresponding move.

The decision to bring Koekkoek back up to the Lightning, who are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, immediately raises the question: Is it Koekkoek’s time?

Earning the Opportunity

The decision to bring Koekkoek back up to the Lightning makes sense and he will have an opportunity to prove himself and earn the number six spot — currently occupied by Nikita Nesterov — or alternatively, receive some playing time when head coach Jon Cooper opts to dress seven defensemen, as he does from time to time.

Nikita Nesterov
Nikita Nesterov is the Lightning’s number six defenseman. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Koekkoek made the Lightning’s roster out of training camp but was a healthy scratch during the team’s first three games. The 22-year-old blueliner was sent down to the Crunch to give him an opportunity to receive regular playing time in the AHL as opposed to sitting in the press box in the NHL — not because he wasn’t ready to play at this level.

Koekkoek played five games with the Crunch and registered assists and was a plus-three, while the Lightning did not dress Taormina.

At the time Koekkoek was sent down, the Lightning had notched three wins to open the season and Cooper said he was happy with how his current roster was playing. Six games later, however, the timing is right for Koekkoek to receive a chance to play. He is a strong skater and could be the sort of defenseman that helps prevent some of the breakaways and odd-man rushes that were part of what lead to a 6-1 loss against the New York Rangers on Sunday.

The Lightning would not be recalling Koekkoek to have him sit in the same press box they wanted to keep him out of being in six games ago. The team is not in trouble at this point in the season, but general manager Steve Yzerman and Cooper see an opportunity to bring up Koekkoek and give him a chance to play. It could be just the sort of situation Koekkoek needs to become a regular member of the Lightning’s roster.

Developing into an NHL Defenseman

Koekkoek was drafted by the Lightning 10th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft — despite undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery during his draft year. Unlike Victor Hedman, who made the immediate jump to the NHL after being drafted second overall in the 2009 draft, the Ontario native’s development has been brought on a little bit slower.

Koekkoek played a combined four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes and the Windsor Spitfires before beginning his professional hockey career in 2014-15 with the Crunch. Koekkoek tallied five goals and 21 assists in 72 regular season games in the AHL. He also saw his first action in the NHL when he skated in three games with the Lightning and registered two penalty minutes.

Koekkoek followed with five goals and 10 assists in 60 games with the Crunch in 2015-16 he and played nine games with the Lightning during the regular season. He scored his first NHL point — an assist — and added two penalty minutes.

The 6’2″, 198-pound defenseman really began to turn heads during the Lightning’s 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs run. After Anton Stralman went down with a leg injury, Koekkoek played 10 games with the NHL club and registered an assist, while also being called upon in important situations. He stepped into the playoffs when the team was down their number two defenseman and showed he was NHL-ready.

Looking Ahead

While no one knows for sure whether Koekkoek will ultimately stay with the Lightning after receiving this call, what Monday’s move signifies is the realization that he is getting the chance to show why he should.  The Lightning play the New York Islanders on Tuesday and Koekkoek will almost certainly be in a Lightning uniform to make his season debut — the 13th NHL regular season game of his career.

If Koekkoek is able to play like the defenseman he was during the 2016 playoffs and like the player who earned his way onto the team’s roster to open this season, don’t be surprised if Koekkoek’s return to the Lightning is a long one.