With the emergence of Mikhail Sergachev, and several Syracuse Crunch defensemen inching closer to assuming full-time NHL duty, Slater Koekkoek continues to get passed on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s depth chart.
There used to be a time, however, when things looked quite promising for the 6’2” defenseman from North Dundas, Ontario. Koekkoek’s final season in midget junior saw him rack up 43 points in 44 games, score at a point-per-game pace during the Telus Cup, and win the Telus Cup with the Notre Dame Hounds in 2010. He also took home the tournament MVP and top defenseman awards.
Returning back to Ontario to play major junior, Koekkoek’s junior career with the Peterborough Petes and the Windsor Spitfires was mired with injury. Although only scoring 23 points in 65 games with the Petes in his rookie season, Koekkoek was named to the OHL all-rookie team and helped Canada (Ontario) win a gold medal at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge.
2010-2011 would be the only season Koekkoek wouldn’t suffer a season-ending injury. Of the four years he spent in the OHL, all of his next three of his seasons ended with Koekkoek needing shoulder surgery.
Koekkoek only managed 18 goals in 26 games in his draft year before injuring his left shoulder in November. The following season, as captain of the Petes, he survived 42 games (and a trade to Windsor) before ending his season early, finishing with 29 points and requiring a second surgery to the left shoulder. And even though his final year in the OHL was met with the same fate (though this time it was his right shoulder), Koekkoek put up 53 points in 62 games in 2013-14. It was a bitter way to end what was his best season to date, as Koekkoek set major junior career-highs in goals and points and was named to the OHL’s First All-Star Team.
As the former 10th overall draft pick from 2012, Koekkoek made his jump to professional hockey in 2014 in Syracuse, hoping to put his shoulder surgeries behind him. Koekkoek played in 72 games with the Crunch that season, and led all Syracuse defensemen in scoring with 26 points. Although passed over by Luke Witkowski and Nikita Nesterov for call-ups earlier in the season, Koekkoek was recalled to the Lightning when Victor Hedman was injured in March. His NHL stint was brief and he failed to record a point in his three games up with the Bolts but he showed flashes of his potential in a Tampa Bay loss. Koekkoek was unafraid to jump into the rush and showed no fear fending off odd-man rushes as the only defenseman back. Naturally, such a promising (albeit short) performance in the NHL meant that expectations were significantly heightened come the following season.
Koekkoek played one game in October for the Lightning in 2015 before being sent back to Syracuse, where he played 60 games with the Crunch, putting up 15 points. He was recalled to the Lightning permanently after Anton Stralman broke his fibula, where he played eight more games in the regular season. He remained with Tampa Bay for three playoff rounds, sitting out as a Black Ace in round one. He dressed for all but two games in the next two rounds, averaging about 10 minutes a night on the third pair. Despite the limited ice-time and role, Koekkoek appeared to have solidified a permanent roster spot in Tampa Bay heading into the fall.
The following season, Koekkoek bounced back and forth between Syracuse and Tampa Bay, playing 48 games with the Crunch and 29 games with the Lightning. Koekkoek made the Bolts out of training camp, but was sent down and recalled twice in one week in December. As the team’s seventh defenseman, Koekkoek was the easy choice to keep up with the club as he wouldn’t require waivers to return to Syracuse. The Lightning were decimated by injuries all season long, which afforded Koekkoek a huge opportunity to make an impact and earn a nightly spot on the blueline. However, he wasn’t able to take advantage and was eventually returned to the Crunch in January, where he played out the remainder of the season. Lightning colour commentator Brian Engblom gave some insight regarding Koekkoek’s struggle to crack the Bolts roster:
“Sometimes he plays himself into the lineup; sometimes he plays himself out of the lineup. On most nights it might be one or two shifts, one or two bad reads, because the coach has another guy like Nesterov or Witkowski. It may not be that Koekkoek played poorly, but it is that marginal to where he wasn’t spectacular enough.” [Tampa Bay Times]
Last season was Koekkoek’s first full season in the NHL, except for the fact that he only played 35 games, spending over 50% of the season in the press box. The start of the season looked promising enough; he scored his first two NHL goals in Tampa Bay’s second game of the season. Koekkoek played fairly regularly in the first part of the year, but he only averaged about 11 minutes a game all season. As the season wore on, it became apparent that something had changed from seasons past. In an even smaller role, he wasn’t playing well enough to suggest an increase in ice-time, nor was he playing poorly enough to warrant a demotion to the AHL. Koekkoek’s usage last season was perplexing at the best of times, and had he not signed a contract extension this past summer, last season might have been the end of his tenure in Tampa Bay.
Running Out of Time
That brings us to this season where, up to this point, Koekkoek has only played in three of the Lightning’s twelve games. After spending the first nine games of the season locked in the press box (a view he became quite familiar with last year), Koekkoek probably would have remained there had Victor Hedman not gone down with an injury.
The Jake Dotchin situation lessened the pressure on Koekkoek to perform in what is likely his make-or-break season, but he still has work to do if he wants to prove he can stay with this team. Whether or not Koekkoek has lost the trust of the coaching staff, or has just not had enough time to adjust to the NHL game is still up for debate, because he still isn’t playing enough to make an educated guess.
Just based on his three games, though, it doesn’t look like anything’s changed from past seasons. With Hedman out for at least a couple of more games, this is Koekkoek’s best chance to turn things around, and he’s on the right track. He scored last night following a great shift by Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph, jumping into the slot to wire home his first goal in almost a full year. But it isn’t Koekkoek’s offensive touch that the fans, media, and, most importantly, coaching staff have griped about when discussing his game. Offensive contributions are always an added bonus, but it is Koekkoek’s play away from the puck and in his own zone that still remain a question mark.
It may be that Koekkoek’s best year of hockey came in his final year in the OHL. Perhaps the key to rediscovering his junior brilliance is a fresh start with a new team. Koekkoek signed a contract extension back in July for a reason, but if he’s not being played regularly, the extension might as well have been for naught.
Including the playoffs, there are approximately seven more months for Koekkoek to make his case to stay in Tampa. The metaphorical ‘Koekkoek’ clock is ticking. Unless he finds a full-time job on the Lightning blueline, time is likely going to run out at the end of the season. Because once Hedman is healthy again, there is no way to know when Koekkoek might get another opportunity like the one he has now.
Let’s hope he makes the most of it.
All career statistics from Elite Prospects.