Koekkoek’s Disappointing Legacy With Lightning

Well, after years of speculation and discussion, the Tampa Bay Lightning have finally traded Slater Koekkoek. The 24-year-old defenseman was sent to the Chicago Blackhawks along with a 2019 fifth-round draft pick in exchange for defenseman Jan Rutta and a 2019 seventh-round pick.

Slater Koekkoek Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning traded Slater Koekkoek to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Jan Ruuta, ending a years-long discussion on what the Bolts should do with Koekkoek. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

For the Lightning, this trade helps alleviate a pressing roster issue they have been fighting with all-season. Simply put, the team has had too many defensemen, causing Koekkoek to be a healthy scratch in all but nine games this season. With Tampa Bay almost back to full health, they were likely going to have to waive a player in order to make room. By trading him for Ruuta, a defenseman who has already cleared waivers, they opened up a needed roster spot while still keeping a depth defender whom they can call up should they need it as the playoffs approach.

Now that he has been traded, though, it is a good time to look back at Koekkoek’s legacy with the Lightning.

Lightning Draft Koekkoek in the First Round

Heading into the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, it was clear that GM Steve Yzerman was going to do one thing: draft a defenseman in the first round. With the 10th and 19th overall picks that year, he had the ammunition to make one or two big splashes at the draft to reshape a defensive prospect pool that had been lacking any real potential. Mock drafts at the time varied on who he would pick with the 10th overall selection, but they all pointed to the same result: a high-end defensive prospect was coming to Tampa in 2012.

At the draft, things went according to plan, just in an unexpected way. After seven defensemen were selected with the first nine picks of the draft, a number far above what anyone had projected prior to the draft, Yzerman and company had to make a tough decision to either draft one of the many forwards who had fallen down the draft board, or keep the trend going and select the eighth defenseman of the first 10 picks. As we know, he ultimately selected Koekkoek, who was viewed as a high-talent defenseman who slid at the draft due to a shoulder injury.

To put it simply, no one expected Koekkoek to be the 10th overall pick. As said by Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times after the selection:

It seemed an odd pick. All week, Yzerman and director of amateur scouting Al Murray said they would pick the best available player, regardless of position. If that held true, perhaps they see something the scouts at NHL Central Scouting missed.

Even at the time, the pick was viewed as a letdown for the Lightning. By just missing out on Jacob Trouba, who went at the ninth overall pick to the Winnipeg Jets, and passing over higher-ranked players like Cody Ceci, Mikhail Grigorenko and Filip Forsberg, Yzerman appeared to be taking a somewhat needless risk with a top-10 pick.

Koekkoek Constantly Lapped by His Peers

Despite his selection raising eyebrows, Koekkoek was still viewed as a risk that could pay off big for Tampa Bay. He had the build and hockey IQ to become an NHL starter, and with the Bolts having such a weak core of defensemen, there would be plenty of room for him to grow into a role with the franchise.

However, by the time that Koekkoek reached the NHL, things had changed for the franchise. No longer were the Lightning the basement dwellers of the NHL. Yzerman had reshaped the franchise into a true playoff threat that had a core of defensemen fighting for NHL time. With the addition of players like Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman, Andrej Sustr and eventually Brayden Coburn, the roster had little room for Koekkoek to break into the lineup. It’s not that he was bad when he was given the chance to play, it’s just that he couldn’t do enough to push a veteran out of a starting role.

Slater Koekkoek #29, Tampa Bay Lightning
Every time it appeared that Koekkoek was going to be given a chance to earn a place with the Lightning, a new defenseman was added to the roster that took over his role with the team. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Every time it appeared that there was going to be a spot for him, Yzerman added someone new with a higher talent ceiling. This occurred twice during the 2017-18 season when the Lightning traded for Mikhail Sergachev in the offseason and then acquired Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline. With two more left-shot defenders added to the team, Koekkoek was pushed off the roster entirely, leading him to sit on the bench for the majority of last season.

Koekkoek’s Earned a Fresh Start

In many ways, there was almost no chance for Koekkoek to meet expectations with the Lightning. From being selected too high in the 2012 Entry Draft to getting buried under a constant stream of new talent within the organization, he wasn’t able to get the playing time needed to become an NHL starter. However, there’s never been a question about his character, as he has handled this scenario like a true professional, never demanding playing time or a trade. For this reason alone, it will be easy to support him as he is hopefully given a full opportunity to thrive in Chicago.

Related: Koekkoek for Rutta – What Did the Blackhawks Get?

Ultimately, Koekkoek’s legacy with the Lightning will be that of disappointment. His status as the 10th overall pick will be viewed as a missed opportunity, and if not for Yzerman selecting Andrei Vasilevskiy with the 19th pick that same year, it could have been a franchise-altering mistake. Given how things have turned out in Tampa Bay, though, Koekkoek will just become a footnote in the team’s history, and whenever he is discussed in the future, the conversation will always include ‘if only the Lightning had selected Forsberg.’