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Comparing Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrej Sustr and Slater Koekkoek so far this season

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Here’s our analysis of whether Andrej Sustr or Slater Koekkoek should be getting more minutes this season.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning front office and coaching staff have made lots of good decisions this season. The front office provided a roster full of players that can contribute to a winning team and the coaching staff has put those players in positions to succeed. Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Mikhail Sergachev are all experiencing breakout seasons partially because the coaches have optimized their usage.

One area that remains murky is the bottom of the defensive depth chart. Andrej Sustr and Slater Koekkoek are currently sharing the role of the seventh defender. The coaches have frequently used a lineup featuring eleven forwards and seven defenders, meaning that Sustr and Koekkoek have gotten more minutes than they would in a traditional lineup. The coaches seem committed to splitting those minutes evenly between the two players, but I’m not sure that this is the correct decision.

The following chart contains some key performance indicators for each player over the last two seasons. The data is all 5v5 and adjusted via corsica.hockey. Each metric is presented as a percentile rank and the chart contains two reference lines to indicate roughly for which pairing those results would be typical.

If we start with last season, we see two bottom pairing defenders who were treated as such. Sustr’s usage was in line with his results. At this point in his career, he’s a known commodity. He’s a 5th or 6th defender and can be successful in that role, but anything above that will lead to poor results, as evidenced by the team’s attempt to make him a shutdown second-pairing player with Jason Garrison.

Koekkoek’s numbers last year were similar to Sustr’s. He was given very little ice time but scored a little more frequently than Sustr, while putting up worse shot impact numbers and nearly identical expected goal impact numbers. Shot share impact and expected goal impact in these charts refer to whether other players on the team perform better or worse in those metrics with Sustr and Koekkoek.

With last year’s results as context, we now understand why the coaches entered this season with the idea that Sustr and Koekkoek would rotate as the seventh defender. But the numbers from this season tell a different a story. The difference between the two players is stark.

Neither has gotten much ice time, but Koekkoek has been far more productive in his opportunities than Sustr. His numbers are that of a top pairing defender. He obviously isn’t that. But excellent results in small samples should, at some point, lead to the opportunity to show what a player can do in a larger sample.

Sustr’s results look almost identical to last season, which makes sense because, as noted above, he’s a known commodity and this is the player he is. He’s a fine option on the bottom pair and would be playing every night for many NHL teams. The challenge for this coaching staff is that they have a player in Koekkoek who is playing like much more than “a fine option.” His results so far even challenge the idea that he should be getting scratched at all, which is a difficult spot for the coaching staff because they already have six defenders who should be playing every night.

This problem doesn’t have a clean solution. One clear first step would be to give Koekkoek all of the seventh defender minutes. It’s hard to justify giving two players with this drastic a gap in results the same opportunity. Further, the coaches should look for more ways to get Koekkoek in the lineup. Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi are both older players who could use rest in what could potentially be a long season for the Lightning. Using Koekkoek to spell them makes sense.

Beyond that, I’m not sure exactly how to get him more minutes. Neither Coburn nor Girardi deserve to be scratched consistently. Maybe if Jake Dotchin struggles, the coaches could find more consistent minutes for Koekkoek. But whatever the case, the team should be looking for chances to reward him for his stellar play this season.

Both Koekkoek and Sustr will be free agents again this offseason. Koekkoek will be restricted and Sustr unrestricted. It seems unlikely that both would return. The team knows what they have in Sustr. I’m not sure they know what Koekkoek is yet. That alone is enough reason to find him minutes whenever possible. The Lightning need to know what he is so that they know how to approach that negotiation.

If Koekkoek is anything close to the player he’s been early this season, that would be a huge bonus for the Lightning. But the only way they’ll find that out is if he gets more opportunities.