No one wants to see a player suffer an injury or miss time due to surgery. However, sometimes these forced roster changes actually benefit a team by giving unproven minor-league players an opportunity to demonstrate what they have and gain NHL experience.
As the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli begin skating in preparation to rejoin the team after offseason surgery, let’s take a look at how Cole Koepke and Nick Perbix have performed in their absence.
Nick Perbix and the Defense
Playing against the tough competition in the Eastern Conference, plus an early visit by Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, it’s fair to say that Perbix has held his own on defense. Since his first NHL game vs the Philadelphia Flyers in the Lightning’s home opener, he seems to be improving with each game. Through 10 games, he is averaging 17 minutes of ice time.
Perbix scored his first NHL goal, the game-winner, against the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie Eric Comrie on Saturday, Nov. 5. He has two assists, nine blocks, nine hits and five takeaways so far this season.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper paired Perbix with Mikhail Sergachev, who at 25 years old, is only one year older than his new linemate. Sergachev is a veteran of 375 games and has 10 points in 13 games this season. If Perbix can learn how to play an effective two-way game like Sergachev, Tampa will have a fearsome duo for the foreseeable future.
Cole Koepke and the Offense
Even though Koepke hasn’t scored a goal yet, his play has been impressive. He plays smart with the puck and has a great shot. After leaving the University of Minnesota/Duluth after his junior year, he joined the Syracuse Crunch last season, scoring 20 goals and 19 assists in 69 games. He impressed the coaches during training camp and was retained by the Lightning, along with Gabriel Fortier, to start the season.
Over the summer, the Lightning made it clear that they liked Koepke, and intended to give him a chance on the fourth line. Playing in his first NHL game vs. the New York Rangers, he has secured a spot on the roster and is playing on the third line with Nick Paul and Ross Colton.
The Minnesota Effect
Koepke and Perbix have a lot in common. Both hail from Minnesota, both are 24 years old and both players were drafted in the sixth round (Koepke 183rd and Perbix 169th). With several years of collegiate experience combined with development in the American Hockey League, these players are NHL-ready.
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Koepke attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth for three years and scored 38 goals and 75 points in 104 games before the Lightning drafted him in 2018. Perbix played hockey for St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and was a member of the U.S. Team at the Olympics in China. He signed a one-year entry-level contract with the Lightning in 2017 and was sent to the Syracuse Crunch.
Although Cirelli is only one year older than Perbix and Koepke, he is a veteran of the NHL with 294 games and two Stanley Cups under his belt. He signed an eight-year contract extension, so he will be with the Lightning for the long term.
Bogosian, who is 32 years old, was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers as the third overall pick in the 2008 NHL Draft and started playing at 18 years old. He has played 737 games and was with the Lightning when they won the 2020 Stanley Cup. His steady presence on the ice has been missed early this season.
Perbix and Koepke Need Experience
Bogosian is expected to be out for a little while longer, which gives Perbix more time to play. There could be a scenario where he permanently breaks into the lineup, especially if he continues to see more ice time than Cal Foote. For Koepke, it might be more difficult to stay with Tampa once Cirelli returns. However, now that the Lightning recognize his value to the team, he could return next season as a replacement for players who could potentially be traded.
For now, the daily grind of the NHL’s regular season is exactly what these two players need, as the experience of playing with future Hall of Fame players can help Perbix and Keopke develop their game.
Lydia Szyjka is a writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware and watch every Lightning game on the NHL’s Center Ice.