In an interview for Championat.com, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Mikhail Sergachev talked to writer Daria Tuboltseva about scoring on Sergei Bobrovsky, dealing with nerves, and his reason for getting a law degree.
If you use this translated text in any way, please credit Daria Tuboltseva of Championat.com and Natalia (@exxtragalactic) of Raw Charge.
“A young player can’t instantly be good at everything in the NHL”
Daria Tuboltseva: How would you rate the start of the season?
Mikhail Sergachev: When the team is playing well, the emotions are only positive. Everything is going well, and the team is rolling.
Tuboltseva: Already thinking of the playoffs?
Sergachev: We talk more about the problems we currently have and how to fix them. It’s not like we think we’ve already clinched a playoff spot.
Tuboltseva: Many people think that the Lightning have a good chance to win the Stanley Cup this year.
Sergachev: The season is long and difficult; it’s hard to predict who wins and who has more chances. Last year, for example, no one expected the Predators to make the finals. So you just have to win, and everything else will fall into place.
Tuboltseva: A year ago, when you made your NHL debut, you said it’s extremely difficult for a young player to perform in the NHL. Is it the same for you this year?
Sergachev: Of course, it’s still hard. A young player can’t instantly be good at everything in the NHL. It won’t be easy. Yes, there are different kinds of opponents. Against some teams the play goes smoothly, while others press so hard that all you can do is defend. It’s very difficult sometimes. There are lots of good players, and every one of them wants to outplay you. You have to always be ready.
Tuboltseva: Which teams are easier to play against and who presses harder?
Sergachev: I haven’t played against everyone yet, but I can say for sure that no team is easy to play against. But it’s particularly hard with teams that have good defense and play physically. Our team isn’t that big, but we make up for it with speed, technique and constant work.
“It’s better not to think much about the fact that you’re in the NHL”
Tuboltseva: Would you agree that last year, when you were a Canadiens player, you weren’t fully ready for the NHL yet?
Sergachev: Obviously, during last year’s preseason games, I wasn’t ready and didn’t understand how to play at all. At that moment, I had only spent one year in Canadian hockey [playing junior hockey for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League]. I was overall unready. But I gained a ton of experience at the exhibition games. When the season started, I began worrying a lot. I thought, “Wow, I’m playing in the NHL, in Montreal, and I’m only 18.” It significantly affected my game.
Tuboltseva: Where have you improved over this time?
Sergachev: I’ve become, well, more mature, spent another year playing Canadian hockey, worked well with the coaches in Windsor. I think I’ve learned to play tougher near the boards, stopped resting when I don’t have the puck. Now I play in defense without the puck, too. These are the improvements, and the rest is physique, how much you can play at a high level. I think I’ve taken it up a notch too.
Tuboltseva: Could you say you’re not afraid of your NHL opponents anymore?
Sergachev: There’s less nervousness for sure, but when you start really thinking about playing in the NHL and for such a team, it gets hard sometimes. It’s better not to think much about the fact that you’re in the NHL and just play hockey, then it’ll be fine (laughs).
Tuboltseva: You’ve become the fourth rookie defenseman in the NHL history to score four goals in the first ten games. Was there a moment when you thought, “Is this really happening to me?”
Sergachev: To be honest, I haven’t thought about it. I haven’t even heard of this statistical fact. It’s nice, of course, but I scored all these goals off great passes from the partners. When I scored my first one, Stamkos had blocked the goalkeeper’s view, and all I had to do was to find the net, it didn’t even matter where I’d shoot. When I do well, it’s because of the team’s great offensive play.
Tuboltseva: You’ll probably remember the game against the Blue Jackets when you scored two goals forever. Was it the best game in your career so far?
Sergachev: I actually think it wasn’t my best game. When I talk to the coaches and discuss my performance, they always note when I’ve had a good game or a worse one, what I should work on. There was one game when I was good both defensively and offensively, and the coaching staff had no complaints. They called it one of my best games. While with Columbus I just scored: there was and opportunity and I took it. We won – that’s the most important thing. But of course I’ll remember it, those were my first goals after all.
Tuboltseva: Did you find a common language with Anton Strålman quickly?
Sergachev: Of course! I think any defender would find a common language with him quickly; he’s very easy to play with. Anton talks a lot on the ice, helps you. When you don’t know where to pass the puck, he’ll always shout. If you don’t know what to do with the puck, you just pass it to Anton (laughs). He deals with it then – either throws it away or passes it off. Strålman is good both with the puck and without it. Even though he’s not big, he has the strength and endurance, so he can play 25-30 minutes.
Tuboltseva: What advice does he give you on the ice?
Sergachev: We work together, and in the process he tells me what I shouldn’t do or where I should get open. He’s right, and we also discuss these moments with our defensive coach. So I keep improving, and our play as partners gets better too.
Tuboltseva: Jon Cooper said that Strålman is a defenseman one could easily win the Norris Trophy with. Do you think you could do it?
Sergachev: I don’t know (laughs). I’ve never thought about it. Of course, it’s the biggest personal achievement, when you’re named the best defenseman in the league, but it’s not my goal right now. I haven’t thought about Norris yet; right now my main goal is stability.
Tuboltseva: Which goals are you setting for yourself?
Sergachev: It goes without saying that I want to win the Stanley Cup. Ask anyone in the NHL – everyone wants this. No one thinks much about personal trophies.
Tuboltseva: Who’s your main rival in the Calder Trophy race?
Sergachev: I haven’t thought about it either (laughs). I see that Clayton Keller is doing great. Even on a team that didn’t start well, he puts up points and scores goals. He’s doing a good job. Clayton was drafted by Windsor too, and they wanted him to join our junior team. We’re on good terms, and I’m following his performance. I watched his first games last year, and he looked so small and unconfident – compared to now, it’s like night and day.
Tuboltseva: Did you know that Russian defensemen have never been nominated for Calder? Would you like to change it?
Sergachev: It would be great, the main thing is to play well and not think about having to put up points in every game. I should play my own game, think about defense first, because I’m a defenseman, and scoring comes second. Everything will come if you work hard enough.
“Are your [non-Russian] teammates afraid of you yet?”
Tuboltseva: Strålman used only one word to describe you: “composure”. Do you have nerves of steel?
Sergachev: Nerves of steel (laughs)? It’s just my style of play: when I feel pressure, I don’t show it much and keep playing my game. Though it happens that I doubt it, because in the NHL there may be moments when you just don’t know what to do with the puck. You have to be able to throw it out of the zone, and if you don’t do it, you’ll lose it, get covered, and the opponent could score. Sometimes I don’t do it because I get nervous, but I try to collect myself immediately.
Tuboltseva: What can make you lose your temper?
Sergachev: It depends on the opponent; different teams do different things to get under your skin. They didn’t touch me yet. I’m not as valuable as Victor Hedman or Nikita Kucherov, so I don’t attract as much attention.
Tuboltseva: In the summer you said that Jon Cooper is an atypical coach. How are you seeing him after several months of work?
Sergachev: Generally, head coaches don’t try to get close and rarely interact with the players. At least that’s how it was for me on other teams. Second coach or defensive coach were the ones to be in contact with the players. Cooper is different. In Tampa, all the coaches and even the general manager want to know what’s going on in the team and ask about everything. They talk to me very often, and it gives me confidence.
Tuboltseva: Do you feel freedom in terms of fulfilling your potential on the ice in Tampa?
Sergachev: They tell me not to be afraid of making mistakes, otherwise there will be a lot of mistakes and I won’t learn anything.
Tuboltseva: A real Russian gang has gathered in Tampa. Are your [non-Russian] teammates afraid of you yet?
Sergachev: Why would they? (laughs)
Tuboltseva: Russian mafia.
Sergachev: (Laughs) No, there’s no mafia here. We don’t go around together all the time. We all speak English, and the other guys treat us well. We can go out to dinner with someone outside of the Russian crew. Everything’s fine.
Tuboltseva: At the game against Columbus, you made an amazing pass to Kucherov, after which he scored. Did Nikita thank you?
Sergachev: Of course he did, said that I’d made a cool pass and that he hadn’t expected it. I know he actually had (laughs). Nikita is always ready; there’s a reason why he scores so many goals. We talked after the game, but it’s all forgotten now.
Tuboltseva: You celebrated Halloween with Kucherov and Namestnikov. How did the party go?
Sergachev: It was fun. The whole team got together, everyone in costumes, played fun games.
Tuboltseva: Who won the coolest costume contest?
Sergachev: We didn’t have one. Everyone had great stuff. Many people had really serious costumes.
Tuboltseva: Is Jack Sparrow your favorite character?
Sergachev: Sparrow is a slob.
Tuboltseva: And so are you?
Sergachev: I am not (laughs). He looks funny, and that’s why I picked him. It turned out cool.
Tuboltseva: Kucherov and Vasilevskiy spend days and nights on the ice. Do you treat your training the same way?
Sergachev: Of course, I’m serious about it. Kucherov and Namestnikov are always the last to leave the ice, and I stay to work, too. I have to, because I’m young and collect pucks after practice (laughs). I shoot a lot and try to improve many aspects of my game.
“It’s too early to compare me to Gonchar and Zubov”
Tuboltseva: You’re constantly compared with Ivan Provorov now. Does this competition motivate you?
Sergachev: I know Vanya very well. Of course, it does, to some extent. I’m very happy for him. I think it’s a great compliment that people compare me to Provorov.
Tuboltseva: Are comparisons with Gonchar and Zubov flattering?
Sergachev: Of course! Though I don’t understand how people can do it. Compare me and Zubov and Gonchar – great defensemen, one of the best in the history of Russian hockey. It’s great, but I think it’s too early now, I haven’t really done anything.
Tuboltseva: Do you understand you could grow to their level?
Sergachev: I’ll never be Gonchar and Zubov, I have my own destiny. I’m paving my own way; I don’t want to get to the level of some particular player. I just want to get better with every game and every practice.
Tuboltseva: Are you concerned with the 40 games that will decide whether the Canadiens will give the Lightning their second-round pick? Have you talked to the management about it?
Sergachev: Not at all. It would be strange for me to worry about it – it’s not my business at all.
Tuboltseva: What is happening in your former club? The team had a poor start and the fans were extremely upset.
Sergachev: Sometimes I open the standings, look at how many points everyone has. Yes, Montreal didn’t start very well, but it should work out, the team is going in the right direction. But I’m not following my former club too closely.
Tuboltseva: Do you see a tendency in how the Canadiens got rid of all their Russians? It is rumored that their head coach Claude Julien was against Russian players.
Sergachev: No, I think it’s just a combination of circumstances. They didn’t sign Markov and gave away Emelin. It didn’t work out financially. I was traded because the Canadiens needed a good forward. I can’t say they purposely got rid of the Russians.
Tuboltseva: The Tampa Bay Lightning is turning 25 this year. Did you learn anything new during the various anniversary-related events?
Sergachev: I knew the Lightning’s history: when the team had won the Stanley Cup, who was the captain that year. Dave Andreychuk visits us often, works at the local TV. It’s interesting to hear what kind of team they were back then.
Tuboltseva: Did you meet the club’s legends, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis?
Sergachev: I saw St. Louis recently, and Lecavalier went fishing with us.
“By my 11th golf game, I didn’t look as lame”
Tuboltseva: How did you deal with Hurricane Irma? The Florida Panthers were evacuated to Boston. How did it go for you?
Sergachev: We were okay – we had flown to Nashville for the tournament. The hurricane didn’t reach us.
Tuboltseva: What kind of city is Saint Petersburg [in Florida]? Is it anything like the Russian Saint Petersburg?
Sergachev: I’ve been there once. All I saw was a beautiful beach.
Tuboltseva: What do you do in your free time in Tampa?
Sergachev: There’s enough to do. I play golf, walk around the city sometimes – there are beaches, and the weather is nice. It depends on the mood, but there are many options.
Tuboltseva: As many hockey players, you like golfing and fishing?
Sergachev: I don’t really have time for all this now. There are other things to do. I do like golf though – I only started last year.
Tuboltseva: And how are you doing?
Sergachev: I’ve played 13 games, and by the 11th I looked okay, not as lame (laughs).
Tuboltseva: Who’s the best golf player on the Lightning?
Sergachev: All the adult guys play well. I think Kucherov and Namestnikov don’t play, but I can’t say for sure.
“Lemieux’s son is very cool”
Tuboltseva: You went to Canada quite early. Have you thought about returning to Russia?
Sergachev: No, no such thoughts.
Tuboltseva: Did you receive invitations often?
Sergachev: Not a single one.
Tuboltseva: If you had stayed in Ak Bars [of the Kontinental Hockey League], when do you think you’d be allowed to play for the first team – at 23-24?
Sergachev: It all depends on how you’re developing and how good you are. They’ll never keep you in the VHL [Russian equivalent of the American Hockey League] if you’re a great player. For example, there’s Mikhail Sidorov in Ak Bars – it’s clear that he’s good, so he’s in the KHL now. The coaches see that the VHL and MHL are no place for him, so they put him on the first team.
Tuboltseva: Before leaving for Canada, you spent a year playing for Irbis in the MHL. Could you compare the level of hockey in the MHL and OHL?
Sergachev: It’s hard to compare – different ice, different rinks. That’s probably the only difference. Because of the smaller rink, it seems that the players run faster. As for the players’ level, right now best Canadian junior players are competing with our guys in the Super Series, and Russians even win. Maybe because of the faster game Canadians can think and make decisions more quickly. But our guys outplay them anyway.
Tuboltseva: Did it take you long to get used to the smaller rinks?
Sergachev: It took me long to get used to the league and the rinks. I needed 15-20 games to get accustomed to everything. You have to play a little differently, think quicker, shoot more.
Tuboltseva: You played on the team with Claude Lemieux’s son, Brendan. Is he as cool as his father?
Sergachev: I’ve never followed Claude so it’s hard for me to say what kind of player he is. But his son is very cool, I loved playing with Brendan a lot. We had a good connection on the ice, we could always see each other. I made a pass, and Brendan would always score. He also helped me with things because he had already been drafted and had spent a few years in the league. We sat next to each other in the locker room, talked a lot. Brendan is a tough player, he skates well and has a very hard shot.
Tuboltseva: Did you already know English when you were leaving? Was it difficult to learn?
Sergachev: It was difficult at first. I could understand English, but it wasn’t that easy to adapt. Then I got a teacher. The family I lived with, all the players helped me. No one laughed at me. Most of the work was done with the teacher: he did an excellent job, taught me how to give interviews in English, how to talk to certain people and so on.
Tuboltseva: Since you were drafted by Montreal, do you understand any French?
Sergachev: No (laughs). I thought I’d start learning if I made the team.
Tuboltseva: In the summer you said you were going to apply to the Faculty of Law. Why did you choose this field?
Sergachev: Yes, and I was admitted. I’ve completed an accounting qualification at college. I decided to study law in university because you can get a lot of books and information on the internet and study remotely. This education will definitely be useful in the future – lawyers know well where to invest money and where not to, are familiar with the laws. I think it’ll help me in life.
Tuboltseva: Is it hard to find the time for studying during the season?
Sergachev: Actually, if you don’t have a game, there’s only practice in the morning, and the rest of the day is free. It is possible to find the time.