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Thoughts on Slater Koekkoek and the future of the Tampa Bay Lightning blue line

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With Hedman’s injury, Koekkoek has opportunity to secure his spot in the lineup.

Philadelphia Flyers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

Every Tampa Bay Lightning fan held their collective breath when defenseman Victor Hedman was injured in the last game before the break. Those breaths were let out in a giant woosh across the Tampa Bay area when it was revealed he would only be missing three to six weeks with a lower body injury.

When watching the replays of the injury, there was a definite fear that something in his knee was torn and he would be out for the season. Thankfully, that doesn’t look to be the case and he should hopefully be back in the lineup by the end of February.

In the meantime, Slater Koekkoek will finally have his chance to prove he belongs in the NHL full time. This injury is precisely why general manager Steve Yzerman hung on to Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr as insurance. With Jamie McBain being the only defenseman with the Syracuse Crunch that has NHL experience, the depth would have been even thinner by making a deal involving Koekkoek or Sustr.

That thought was backed up even further by Elliott Friedman in this week’s edition of 31 Thoughts for SportsNet.

13. Nick Kypreos reported that the likes of Boston and Ottawa have tried to pry Slater Koekkoek from Tampa, only to be rebuffed. The lefty shot gets a better opportunity with Victor Hedman out. Even before the Norris Trophy contender went down, it is believed the Lightning were looking for another defender.

But beyond the thought of keeping Koekkoek around as depth, there also has to be the thought that Koekkoek can also be a part of the blue line in the future as well. With this opportunity to play full time for the next three to six weeks, the front office and coaching staff can get a better idea of exactly what they have with Koekkoek.

Once viewed as a potential #3 defenseman to play behind Hedman when he was selected 10th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry draft, his development has been slowed by three shoulder surgeries.

He is now 23 years old and has played 63 games in the NHL. After scoring just five assists in his first 41 games in the NHL over the past three seasons, Koekkoek has contributed four goals and seven points in 22 games this season while playing few minutes.

If Koekkoek can convince the organization that he can be a third-pairing left-sider on the blue line, where does that leave him and the team going into the 2018-19 season?

Hedman and Sergachev are obviously not going anywhere as the top two left-handers for the Lightning. Likewise for Stralman on the right side. Girardi on the right side also appears to be in a solid position as he has played well this season in a reduced role and different system from what he was in with the New York Rangers.

That leaves left-hander Braydon Coburn and right-hander Jake Dotchin. Coburn brings versatility in that he can play both the left and right side on the blueline. In fact, he’s played more on the right side in his career than the left, but has been almost exclusively on the left side of the defense for Rick Bowness this season. Dotchin is younger, and cheaper, and has settled in next to Hedman on the top pair. He also has some chemistry with Koekkoek after playing as a pair late into the AHL playoffs last season for the Syracuse Crunch. I should also note here that Sustr is an unrestricted free agent this summer and unlikely to be brought back.

While it’s possible that Dotchin could be on the move, the team also needs to look to 2019-20 and beyond after Girardi’s deal has been completed. Cal Foote could be on the way to the NHL by then, but that’s no guarantee. Erik Cernak could also be ready by then to step in on the third pair as a right hander. Stralman also only has a year remaining on his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent at the same time as Girardi. He would also be 33 at the start of the 2019-20 season if the team chooses to re-sign him.

In my mind, that leaves Coburn as the player that Koekkoek could potentially replace. He only has a year remaining on his contract with a $3.7 million cap hit. His full no-trade clause that he has had in the first two seasons of his three-year deal turns into a modified no-trade clause on July 1st, 2018 when he has to submit a list of 16 teams he would accept a trade to.

Coburn has seemed to be on the outs a bit with the coaching staff as he was a healthy scratch for a game prior to the bye week break. Prior to his injury at the beginning of December, Coburn was averaging 16:57 TOI per game with only four games under 15 minutes TOI out of 25. Since returning from his two week absence, he has averaged only 15:26 TOI in 12 games with five of those games under 15 minutes TOI and three under 14 minutes.

He turns 33 at the end of February and has slowed down a bit. His cap hit is still manageable for an experienced third pair defenseman with over 800 NHL games on his resume. A return for Coburn won’t be nearly the first- and third-round picks, plus Radko Gudas, that the Lightning gave up to acquire him. But he can still return a mid-round draft pick to a team that needs an experienced left-hander on the third pairing.

Of course, that’s all predicated on Koekkoek earning the opportunity to continue playing on the third pairing beyond the 2017-18 season.