For the Tampa Bay Lightning, building a defensive corps that could compete with the best in the NHL has been a long and arduous task. For many years, the franchise heavily relied on Victor Hedman to carry the defense, propping up a unit that was, at best, mediocre.
Through a series of smart trades and free-agent signings, the Lightning have now managed to assemble one of the top defensive units in the league. With Norris-caliber talents like Hedman and Ryan McDonagh leading the charge, the 2019-20 unit has the potential to be one of the best in franchise history.
However, there is one major X-factor to the Lightning’s success this season: Mikhail Sergachev. Heading into his third season in Tampa Bay, the 21-year-old Russian defenseman will be expected to take the next step in his career. How he handles this step could become a major factor in Tampa Bay’s ability to reach their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.
What Are Lightning’s Expectations for Sergachev?
Based on the moves made by the Lightning during the 2019 offseason, it seems fairly certain that Sergachev will be taking over the role of top-pairing defenseman to start off the 2019-20 season. While there is a chance that a veteran like Kevin Shattenkirk could find himself in this position, all signs point towards a Hedman-Sergachev pairing.
This would be a pretty big bump in responsibility for Sergachev, who spent his first two NHL seasons playing somewhat sheltered minutes on the Lightning’s second and third defensive pairings. Despite averaging less than 17 minutes of ice-time each night, he still found incredible scoring success, posting 40 points in his rookie season and 32 points in his sophomore campaign.
Sure, he had his fair share of growing pains while adjusting to the NHL game, but all told, Sergachev looked more than ready to play alongside Hedman at points throughout the 2018-19 season.
Given the Lightning’s depth at defense, he also won’t be completely thrown to the wolves from day one. With players like McDonagh and Hedman to lighten the workload, he may only need to take on four to five more minutes of ice time each night, increasing his playing time from 17 to 21 minutes.
While this is no small increase, it is a better scenario than if Sergachev had to eat 25 minutes of ice time each night without the likes of one of the top defensemen in the NHL watching his back.
Are the Lightning Ready for Sergachev’s New Role?
Despite the fact that all signs point toward Sergachev starting on the top-pairing, this is far from a guarantee. Given how the franchise has handled their lineup in years past, it would come as no surprise for Lightning head coach Jon Cooper to trust a veteran player like Shattenkirk to take on the top pairing.
The 2019 playoffs are the perfect example of this happening. When Hedman’s then defensive partner Anton Stralman went down with an injury, Cooper replaced him with Dan Girardi for the start of the playoffs.
Given how Girardi’s play had slowed throughout the season, this decision puzzled fans. While there are a number of factors that led to Sergachev getting pushed to the third pairing, one part was likely due to a lack of confidence in his experience and ability to take on such an important role in the playoffs.
If Cooper feels that Sergachev isn’t ready to take on the top-pairing role from day one, he won’t force the issue. Typically this would be the right call for a young defenseman but given where he is in his career, getting thrown into the deep end and working through the highs and lows of a full season may actually be exactly what Sergachev needs for his development.
Sergachev Should Be a Top-Pairing Defenseman
As the Lightning begin training camp, one can only hope that Sergachev is ready to take on the role of a top-pairing defenseman. If he looks ready, Cooper needs to give him the opportunity to start off the season alongside Hedman so he can work through what that entails.
If that works out, then the Lightning will have finally found the missing piece of their defensive puzzle: a long-term partner for Hedman. Top-pairing defensemen are a rare commodity in the NHL, so if Sergachev fills that void for Tampa Bay, it could transform the team and potentially put them over the top in their pursuit for a Stanley Cup.