The upcoming season will be consequential for Mikhail Sergachev. Entering year three, he has nearly 179 NHL games under his belt and will be an RFA next summer. It is not an exaggeration to say that Sergachev’s future with the Lightning hangs in the balance. Successful NHL defensemen sometimes need luck, and with Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman gone, Sergachev is well positioned to slide into a top-four role. Yet the Sergachev experience is one of peaks and valleys. Plenty of time has been spent in this space on Sergachev’s shortcomings, so I’ve come up with three things that would increase his value and earn him an extension with the Bolts.
1. Shoot early and often
The Lightning finished just outside the top ten in shot attempts at 5v5 last season. Realistically, they would have finished higher if they had not throttled so many teams in the early periods and then coasted. So, it would be an exaggeration to say the Lightning were adverse to shooting, and yet, more than any NHL contender I watched, they were the most susceptible to pass up a good shooting opportunity in search of a great one. With their abundance of skill and speed, that was permissible in the regular season, but failed miserably in the playoffs.
Sergachev is a countervailing influence, and the Lightning would be wise to foster a shoot-first mentality from him. He has redoubtable acceleration and can gain a step on the opposition and find the shooting lane with a quick wrist shot. He finished behind only Victor Hedman in shot attempts among Lightning defensemen, but for Sergachev to author a destiny where he sticks around Tampa Bay for the long term, he needs to dramatically increase his volume of rubber on net.
Sergachev will not get the same amount of playing time as San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, but Burns should be a role model. Burns unleashed 497 shot attempts at 5v5 last season, which is an astonishing figure. The number dwarfs those of any player on the Lightning, including Nikita Kucherov. Even with less ice time, Sergachev should adopt Burns’s mentality of using his skill to transport the puck around the offensive zone, find shooting lanes, and whip pucks on net. Like Burns, Sergachev has power on his snap and slap shots, albeit with less of a windup.
The impact of more shots from Sergachev would be substantial. Finding the shooting lanes through multiple layers of bodies is one of the most difficult tasks for an NHL defenseman, and if achieved with any regularity, gives the forwards on offense an opportunity to deflect the puck or jam in a rebound. The Lightning struggled mightily to obtain shots inside the dots against stingy defensive teams, and by getting the puck to the net, they would have an opportunity to whack the puck from the low slot.
2. Experiment with defensive partners
If Sergachev’s destiny is to become an unapologetic gunner, I am slightly worried about redundancy and defensive miscues if he is paired with Victor Hedman. Hedman also likes to control the puck, and is a willing shooter. If together for long stretches of time, will they be jockeying for who gets to shoot and who gets to pinch? I don’t think it should be punitive: either he plays with Hedman or gets shoved down to third pair. It is worth remembering that the Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak defensive pairing got waxed against Columbus.
How about experimenting with McDonagh-Sergachev and Sergachev-Cernak? The data is limited, especially for the latter pairing. Sergachev only played 13 minutes with Cernak last season, and the numbers are pretty ugly. But Sergachev would certainly get to be more puck-dominant with Cernak as his partner, and his defensive vulnerabilities could be papered over because Cernak is so deft in defensive coverage. The question then is will McDonagh accept playing the off side in games of consequence with Hedman? The numbers with those two together are also horrible, but they deserve a larger sample size. Still, ultimately, it might make the most sense for Cernak to play with Hedman as first pair and for McDonagh and Sergachev to play together. In 89 minutes with those two manning the blue line, the Lightning controlled possession in a dramatic fashion. And McDonagh would provide nice cover over the top if Sergachev started freelancing.
3. When in doubt, move toward the center
Shooting more is an act for which Sergachev has agency. Who he plays with is determined by the Lightning coaches. While Sergachev’s positioning can, in theory, be molded and shaped by his coaches, significant improvement in this area feels the most wishful. Positioning is the aspect of his game that elicits the most grimaces and head-scratching, and sometimes athletes never have that moment of clarity with their Achilles’ Heel. If Sergachev can embrace a mantra, it should be: “When in doubt, move toward the middle.” One of this player’s paradoxes is that he can look so graceful with the puck, but be so rudderless without it.
Improving gap control is a worthy aspiration, but there were too many instances last season when Sergachev would chase a player along the boards and cede the inside lane. He needs to be mindful of when and where he pinches, especially if he does not have help over the top. The neutral zone was another area where Sergachev could be lost, allowing his opponent to pounce.
In his head, Sergachev is so fast that he may think he has sufficient recovery speed to get away with chasing players in the neutral zone or along the boards. But this is a mistake, and is a point that needs to be driven home. Instilling better defensive habits is a must if coach Jon Cooper is going to deploy Sergachev as a reliable defenseman. More conservatism in his defensive posture, from how he defends puck-carriers to his first passes (an indirect pass out of the zone is not a failure), would help build trust with his coaches and cement his role.
Sergachev’s natural ability makes him a very dangerous player to give up on. If he can shore up his defensive shortcomings and take a more pragmatic approach with the puck, it is not unfathomable that he could register 15-20 goals and get a Norris Trophy vote. How Sergachev responds this season is one of many dramatic plot points which make me eager and impatient for the season to begin.