Death, taxes, Slater Koekkoek shoulder injuries.
I know that phrase is usually uttered about a certain forward now with the New York Islanders, but if there's something that's been consistent (and frustrating) in Slater Koekkoek's young hockey career, it's been season-ending shoulder injuries.
The Tampa Bay Lightning overlooked the first one during his draft year in selecting the defenseman 10th overall in 2012, following a notable run on defensemen early, but two more in the time since has to give some folks pause when ranking the talented young rearguard.
Here's how the panel ranked the 10th overall pick from 2012:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 17
Koekkoek moves up two spots overall from last year, but it's hard not to imagine he'd have been ranked much higher on a few lists -- closer to where Mike Gallimore placed him, as a top-10 player in the system -- had his year in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires not been cut short for the third straight year due to a serious shoulder injury.
The injury reportedly occurred during this fight with Saginaw Spirit winger Jeremiah Addison:
It's hard to see exactly where the injury happens, and it's tough to say whether the fact this particular ailment (a torn labrum, which required a third surgery) being on the opposite shoulder of the previous two is a good thing or a bad thing moving forward.
The injury and subsequent rehab and recovery held Koekkoek out of some development camp activity, including the 3-on-3 tournament, but the plan is still for him to be fully recovered for training camp next month.
Prior to the injury, there's little doubt that Koekkoek was making his last season in the CHL, and first with the Windsor Spitfires, a huge success. He finished with 53 points in 62 games and a +44 rating as he moved to a more well-rounded, competitive club.
Director of Player Development for the Lightning, Stacy Roest, noticed the improvements to his game in his final season of junior hockey eligibility:
"He made huge steps, his defending was better, his timing to jump into plays was better, his skating has never been an issue," Roest said.
Koekkoek's skating is one element of his game that always seems to stand out. He's fast, but he's not just pure straight-line, Michael Grabner speed -- he's efficient and fluid, making big strides and quick transitions look effortless. His lateral and backwards mobility are probably both underrated, as Koekkoek is a rare "four-way" skater that gets around the rink with ease, be it on the attack and with the puck on his stick, managing his gap on a wide rush, or marking his man in the defensive zone.
While he may lack the dynamic offensive ability of Anthony DeAngelo or the physicality of Dominik Masin, Koekkoek's superb skating coupled with good on-ice vision and hockey sense probably makes him the best two-way defense prospect in the system, as he does most things well and some things exceptionally well. There aren't many holes to poke in his game when he's on the ice -- it's the ability to stay on the ice that's holding him back.
At this point in his career, it's fair to say the only knock on Koekkoek's game isn't really a knock on his game at all: he just can't seem to stay on the ice for a full season before one of his shoulders breaks down. Barring a transcendent showing at training camp in September, he's headed for the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL this year to start his professional career. The next step towards eventually making the Lightning blue line full-time will be proving he can continue to play at a high level against better competition and with a more rigorous schedule -- all while keeping his surgically repaired shoulders intact.
With left-shot defensemen Eric Brewer and Mark Barberio both on expiring deals this year, it would be wise to pay close attention to Koekkoek's AHL rookie campaign in order to help project the Lightning blue line in 2015 and beyond.