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Tampa Bay Lightning assign Slater Koekkoek to Syracuse Crunch for conditioning

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Koekkoek heads to the AHL to get some minutes.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Lightning Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning announced this morning that they have assigned Slater Koekkoek to the Syracuse Crunch for a conditioning assignment. Koekkoek has only played in nine games this season and hasn’t been in the lineup since November 19th. He played less than ten minutes in that game. The conditioning stint allows Koekkoek to go to the Crunch without clearing waivers. He’ll have to return to the Lightning within fourteen days.

The assignment to Syracuse gives him the chance to get some minutes. That’s unlikely to happen in Tampa unless the team suffers multiple injuries on defense. Erik Cernak’s emergence has pushed Koekkoek firmly into the eighth defensive spot on the roster.

A conditioning stint is probably best for all involved. Koekkoek has to be frustrated with how little game time he’s gotten over the last two seasons. But when he has played, he hasn’t done much to suggest that he deserves more playing time. He’s been comfortably the worst player on Tampa’s blue line over the last two seasons. He’s scored okay, but his shot metrics have been poor.

Koekkoek has nine points in thirty six games over the last two seasons. But his teammates give up nearly eleven more shots per sixty minutes and nearly half an expected goal more. For context, that’s worse than Andrej Sustr, who left as a free agent last summer, and more than three times worse than Braydon Coburn, who is eighth among the ten defenders who’ve played in Tampa over the last two seasons.

Once a top prospect in the organization after being a top ten pick, he has become a fringe player. Some might wonder why the team has kept him instead of trading him to try to acquire a draft pick and give him an opportunity to play elsewhere.

While we can’t know what the team is thinking, it could be they think Koekkoek has a place on the roster next season. The team has three unrestricted free agents on the blue line this summer. Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn all have expiring contracts. That leaves the team with four NHL defenders under contract: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak.

If they re-sign one of the free agents, that would give Koekkoek first crack at the sixth defender spot. His competition would likely be Dominik Masin and possibly Cal Foote, but Foote isn’t having the kind of season that suggests he’s one season away from the NHL, and Masin struggled in camp this fall.

Koekkoek’s career hasn’t gone the way he or the team would have hoped, and he seems unlikely to have an opportunity to change that this season. This conditioning stint gives him a chance to play at game speed, maybe regain some confidence, and hopefully return to the Lightning more ready to play should the team need him.

But in reality, this season is about waiting. Koekkoek’s real chance will come next season, when the Lightning will have to remake half of their blue line. If he’s going to be an NHL player, that’s the most likely time for it to happen.