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Top 25 Under 25, #6: The case for Slater Koekkoek

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There are two sides to every story. The case for defenseman Slater Koekkoek is no different.

Scott Thomas

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the RawCharge writing staff. Four writers, plus a special guest, ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.

Want to weigh in? Post your own fan ranking here!

There are basically two sides to Slater Koekkoek’s case for his position in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization going into the fall of 2017. There are those who feel that he’s been woefully underutilized, that both the Lightning and their fan base haven’t been able to see what he can really do. Then there are those who claim that if the Lightning felt an investment in him was feasible, they would have made that investment more permanent a long time ago. In general, there really isn’t any middle ground.

Koekkoek was selected by the Lightning 10th overall in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. A native of Winchester, Ontario, Koekkoek has played in 41 career NHL games with Tampa Bay, recording five assists. He has also skated in 10 Stanley Cup playoff games with the Lightning, notching one assist.

Koekkoek was re-signed by the Lightning just this past month to a one-year, one-way contract worth $800,000. He had been a restricted free agent at the end of his entry-level contract. Many view the one-year term limit as a “put up or shut up” contract, meant to give Koekkoek a stage to show what he can do while also letting him know that he needs to perform. For better or for worse, his time to show what he can do within the Lightning organization is running out.

This past season, Koekkoek earned a call up in November as injuries rocked the Lightning and the team started to flounder. However, the recall would last a little more than a month before he was sent back down to Syracuse. Koekkoek was understandably let down by his demotion in December, especially since it didn’t seem like he knew what the Lightning’s expectations were. In a linked article by our contributor Saima, the following discussion is transcribed:

Question: Did Tampa Bay say anything when they sent you down, as far as a timetable?

Koekkoek: No, they didn’t. They just said, “Go play and get some minutes.”

Question: And when they said that to you, what was your reaction?

Koekkoek: I was upset. I don’t want to be sent down ever. But if I have to, then there’s nothing I can really do about it.

Question: What’s your perspective up there [in Tampa]? Obviously they’ve still been struggling, trying different lineups. I mean [Luke] Witkowski’s up, you were sitting. From your perspective, what do you see going on up there?

Koekkoek: Well I think we’re just going through a tough patch. Teams are good. Teams are after us. You know, with videos these days, they know how we play and we’ve got to adjust that. I think we’ll do it. It’s just going to take a little time.

Question: You’re a younger guy. You know, from the perspective of coming up and down a lot. Is it tough for you - patience and just sort of making your way to a full-time NHL job?

Koekkoek: Yeah, it’s tough. It wears on you. Like I was so thankful to get called up last time. I thought I was playing well. You know, to have that taken away is hard. But like I said before, there’s really nothing I could do about it. I have to come down here and play as hard as I can.

Although he was recalled again about a week later, his promotion didn’t stick and Koekkoek was back in the AHL by mid-January. Luckily for the Crunch, Koekkoek joined a host of players who were sent down to Syracuse this past season unexpectedly and dealt with the disappointment in a productive, mature way.

Koekkoek, Cory Conacher, Erik Condra, and Joel Vermin all faced unexpected time with the Crunch, and all four of them rose to the occasion and then some, becoming cornerstones of their team.

In fact, those who believe in his ability to make the Lightning’s blue line better only have to look to Koekkoek’s performance in Syracuse to support their arguments. Koekkoek was a rock for the Crunch this past season, playing in 48 regular season games and netting 13 points. He was a workhorse on the Crunch’s penalty kill during the regular season and during the playoffs. He had 7 points throughout the course of the Crunch’s 22 playoff games. Overall, he has played in 180 career AHL games with Syracuse, recording 12 goals and 54 points. He has appeared in 25 career Calder Cup playoff games, recording 8 points.

Unfortunately, Koekkoek’s Herculean efforts in the AHL haven’t translated to the NHL. In fact, Raw Charge contributor Alan noted earlier this summer that, “based purely on results, arguing that Koekkoek deserved to be in Tampa is difficult.” In a different piece, Alan also noted that Koekkoek’s games with the Lightning just haven’t been “particularly exciting.” In that linked article, Alan posted Koekkoek’s player card from @ineffectivemath at hockeyviz.com, which can also be seen here:

However, playing Devil’s Advocate as always, Alan took efforts to note in both pieces that Koekkoek’s development has been stalled by a lack of NHL exposure. In fact, earlier last season, Alan confessed to be puzzled by Koekkoek’s impending demotion. Much of the data that was available at that time showed Koekkoek was part of the Lightning’s second-best pairing:

Koekkoek has not gotten the same leash that other young defenders like Jake Dotchin and Luke Witkowski were granted. While both Dotchin and Witkowski play a very different game than Koekkoek, something which could have factored into the different treatment, the results of that shortened leash makes it extreamly difficult to judge Koekkoek’s actual ability.

Clearly the members of our panel feel that Koekkoek’s potential goes way beyond what he has been able to show so far. What will be crucial for Koekkoek’s position in the organization this up coming season is that he gets the chance to show it. However, his chances at getting a fair shot have been complicated by the off season signing of defenseman Dan Girardi. Only one spot has been left open on the Lightning for either Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin, or Mikhail Sergachev.

Koekkoek will require waivers this season. Chances that an attempt to send him to the minors yet again are probably slim because of that. However, with limited minutes available, Koekkoek is going to have to work harder than ever to prove what our panel clearly believes: that he is truly a legit NHL talent.