Tampa Bay Lightning defender Mikhail Sergachev was recently interviewed by Dmitry Groshev of Sport-Express about the role of fellow Russian players with the Lightning, comparisons to other defenders, and Sergachev’s own style of play.
“The Russians fit well with the Lightning’s play”
Dmitry Groshev: It’s the midpoint of the season. The team is rolling, you’re rolling. How are you feeling?
Mikhail Sergachev: Everything’s good. I get to continue my development: the team helps me, and the coaches too. Overall, I’m happy with what’s going on, with the way the Lightning are playing. So the feelings are really positive.
Groshev: When you were traded from Montreal, you admitted that it had been a shock for you. But whatever happens, happens for the best?
Sergachev: I can’t say it was a shock… It was very unexpected. But you’re right – it’s for the best. I think I was lucky to get here. Everyone in Tampa believes in me – thank goodness it turned out like this.
Groshev: There is always significant pressure on bright young players. How are you dealing with the brass pipes? [The Russian idiom “to go through fire, water, and brass pipes” means “to overcome adversity and pass the trials of fame.”]
Sergachev: I try not to read the press – that’s the main rule for me now. I have also been trying to give less interviews recently. Rather than talk, it’s better to play and let the others speak about it. I don’t really think about it.
Groshev: Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and defensive leader Victor Hedman have been saying some kind words about you. Or you haven’t read those either?
Sergachev: Well, no, I have heard of this – I follow the Lightning’s twitter account after all. Of course, I’m very pleased to hear such words, particularly from Hedman, who was a Norris nominee. Victor is one of the best defenders in the league. But I think the coaches and partners talk about me this way because they’re constantly making me better. I’m not a bad player, but everything is much easier for me thanks to the support of the team.
Groshev: The Lightning is one of the most Russian teams in the league, and all of our players there are in the public eye…
Sergachev: Well, it’s just a combination of circumstances. I don’t think the management intentionally picked out the players to create a Russian team. It just happened like this. I guess they saw potential and the team’s future in Kucherov, Namestnikov and Vasilevskiy. When they were drafted, I doubt there was a Russian factor.
The Russians fit well with the Lightning’s play. Quick exit from the defensive zone, keeping the pressure on the opponent. Both Kucherov and Namestnikov like this type of hockey – when fast, skilled forwards with great skating are a priority. Our whole team is like this.
Groshev: But Steve Yzerman has really been fond of Russian players since the times of the Russian Five.
Sergachev: We haven’t talked to each other about this yet. We spoke a few times at the team meetings, and a couple more during the season. I like him; he’s a very good, positive man.
“Not many can do what Kucherov does”
Groshev: You mentioned during an interview that you don’t like being compared to the Russian defenders of the past, for example Sergei Gonchar.
Sergachev: Well, I didn’t say, “Don’t compare me.” I meant that such a comparison is impossible. Of me, someone who has played thirty games in the NHL, and Gonchar, one of the greatest defensemen in the history of the league. I haven’t done anything worthy of such a comparison yet. I think it’s rushed – that’s why I don’t like it.
Groshev: What about being compared to Ivan Provorov?
Sergachev: This one I like. Yes, Vanya is playing his second season in the NHL, I’m playing my first. I can’t say our lives have been similar in any way. He left Russia a little earlier, and we both played in the CHL. It just so happened that we both made our NHL debuts at 19. In these circumstances, there might be room for some comparison.
But for all that, Vanya and I are different players, of different styles, and you can’t find two identical hockey players anyway. Everyone is individual. But, of course, it’s nice to be compared to him. I wouldn’t say Provorov is carrying the whole team, but he gets a lot of minutes, both on the power play and penalty kill.
Groshev: You’re also getting more ice time with every game.
Sergachev: I used to get 18 minutes, and 14, and even 10 at first. [The coaches] gradually led me towards more time: checked, watched the results – and began to trust more and more. The main thing is that I have enough physique – I had been preparing for the season for a long time.
Groshev: You experienced a rather sharp transition from junior to adult hockey. Did you adapt quickly?
Sergachev: Of course, there are specific problems connected to this. It’s always hard to make this transition, find yourself with the grown-up professionals right after the juniors. But everyone on the team is so nice and friendly that I don’t feel “young”. Although the traditions are still there. I still pick up the pucks, I’m still the last to leave the bus – but that’s what traditions are for.
Groshev: You have got over 20 points in the 30 games you’ve played. Do you have a certain bar for yourself?
Sergachev: No, nothing like that. I never think about the points. I try to leave the zone as fast as possible, start and finish the attacks. Yes, I like to jump into the rush, pass the puck quickly to the offense. But, for example, I passed to Kucherov in a recent game – I didn’t know he was going to score. I didn’t do anything special and got a point.
Generally, when Kucherov gets the puck, get ready for something to happen. He’ll either take a killer shot or make such a pass that the only thing left to do will be to score. He’s really interesting to play with – Nikita always looks for beautiful and unconventional solutions. He knows where on the ice he should be for the partner to see him. Kuch is a master, an NHL superstar, you can’t argue with that. Not many can do what he does.
“I’m not going to go easy on Crosby and Ovechkin”
Groshev: Recently, you scored your seventh goal of the season with a great wrist shot, but celebrated it rather quietly.
Sergachev: Different situations happen. Sometimes we trail, say 1-2, and you really want to score to help the team win, and the emotions flow out of you. But other times, I try to keep these emotions to myself to avoid relaxing, even if I score. I am always happy with every goal scored but try not to show it. Actually, I’m happier when I manage to prevent the opponent from scoring on us. A blocked shot is no less important than a point. Everyone loves scoring, but I’m a defender first and foremost.
Groshev: How would you define your role?
Sergachev: I can’t call myself an offensive player. It actually even annoys me when people call me just an offensive defender. I try to be responsible in defense as well. I don’t drop everything in the back to join the offense. So I try to fulfil my duties everywhere.
Groshev: If you don’t like the label of an offensive defender, what’s your opinion on rough, physical game with no regard for the authority?
Sergachev: Obviously, there are players like Jaromir Jagr. But still, he understands that the league is young, that he will be played against just as everyone else. Or take Crosby and Ovechkin. Of course, they’re superstars, the authority figures – but I, personally, am not going to go easy on them. I play the same way against everyone, be it Crosby or Dubois. I don’t count the hits I make on stars, though.
Groshev: Is checking a key skill for a defender?
Sergachev: It depends on the defender’s style. Some can do without it, some can’t. There are situations when you feel that the moment requires “settling” a player, taking the puck away. But some players turn checking into a show, smashing, “killing” the opponent. If I see a player with his head down, I’ll try to teach him to keep it up. The most important thing is having no intention of injuring anyone: you need to get the puck, not destroy the opponent.
Groshev: How do you take criticism? Can the guys on the team chew you out?
Sergachev: I have a feeling that the coaches think I’ll get upset if someone “chews me out”. But if I make a mistake, I’m the first person to tell myself off. And I try not to give anyone reasons to shout at me. As for criticism, I handle it well. If you were wrong, your partner has a right to tell you his thoughts on it. But our players are kind – they don’t yell.
Groshev: You said in one of your interviews that you’re not at all interested in the possible trophy for the best rookie. Seriously?
Sergachev: No, of course it’s great to earn such a prize, but I don’t think about it at all. Becoming the best rookie is not my goal. It’s somewhere at the end of my priorities. The main goal is the Stanley Cup; that’s what we have to work for. While being the best rookie… If it happens, I’ll be glad. If not, I won’t get upset.