The Tampa Bay Lightning announced on Monday the re-signing of restricted free agent Slater Koekkoek to a one-year contract for $865k. The deal gives both the player and team another season to assess where Koekkoek fits in the Lightning organization. The tenth-overall pick in 2012 has been unable to break into the Lightning lineup with any consistency and played just 35 games last season with many of those being as the seventh defender.
We have re-signed Slater Koekkoek to a one-year, one-way contract worth $865,000. https://t.co/9GdJ4GVOpB— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) July 2, 2018
Looking ahead to this season, Koekkoek’s role is uncertain. The Lightning have four left-handed defenders on the roster ahead of him: Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and Braydon Coburn. The team showed they are willing to play Sergachev on the right at the end of last season, so if that continues, Koekkoek will be competing with Coburn for the the final spot on the left side of the defense.
Koekkoek fills the role of “high draft pick who fans want to see more of but the coaches don’t seem to trust” for the Lightning. Every team has at least one of these players. After bursting on to the NHL scene during the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, Koekkoek seemed headed for regular playing time in a Lightning defensive group desperate for talent.
Instead, Koekkoek struggled along with the rest of the team during a tumultuous 2016-2017, and the organization sent him back to the AHL. The demotion to the AHL was at least partially because he didn’t require waivers and allowed the Lightning to avoid risking the loss of a roster player.
While Koekkoek’s results made it difficult to argue with that decision, he was playing competently with Coburn and considering that the Lightning’s season was already lost, it seemed like an opportunity to get him some minutes to try and further his development. Had the Lightning better managed their roster, we might have gotten to see Koekkoek play more, and as a result, have a better idea of what he can do in larger role. Him being sent back to Syracuse because the team was afraid of losing Luke Witkowski on waivers looks even more absurd in retrospect than it did at the time. And it looked pretty absurd at the time.
Going into 2017-2018, Koekkoek was stuck in a glut of defensive depth after the addition of Sergachev in the offseason. He did stay in Tampa for the entire season, but didn’t earn much playing time and didn’t put up particularly strong results when he did. Among all nine Lightning defenders who played last season, he had the worst shot share.
Below is his skater card from HockeyViz that shows how he has performed in all 73 games thus far in his career.
Koekkoek has shown an ability to score, which is encouraging, but the Lightning get outshot and outscored at a worse rate with him on the ice than when he’s not. He also takes too many penalties, which doesn’t help his case. One factor that could mitigate his results a bit is that he’s played with poor defensive partners for much of his time. The coaches did not afford him the same opportunity as Sergachev to grow into an NHL role with a reliable partner. Instead, they played him sporadically and paired him with whoever needed a partner.
One wonders how that might have gone differently with a different coach. Rick Bowness took a traditional approach to defender development and deployment. With Bowness no longer on staff, maybe we’ll see a change in approach from Jon Cooper and Todd Richards. Both are expected to take a more active role in the defense this year and that could lead to a new approach with Koekkoek.
One of the most telling ways of understanding Koekkoek’s position on the team is to look at his leverage chart from HockeyViz. This chart shows whether a player is on the ice in the situations that most impact the outcome of the game. Players in the top-right play the highest-leverage offensive and defensive minutes while players in the bottom-left play the lowest-leverage minutes. One way to interpret this is that the players who play the highest leverage minutes have the greatest amount of trust from the coaches.
Koekkoek’s location here is almost comical. He is on an island playing by far the lowest leverage minutes. Even compared to a rookie like Sergachev, he doesn’t see the ice at all when the outcome of the game is being determined.
Using the information we have about Koekkoek up to this point in his career, I have a hard time expecting top four results from him. He hasn’t had a great opportunity to play, and I can certainly find faults in how the organization has handled his development, but his results have been poor even in the chances he’s gotten. We also have evidence that the coaches don’t feel he’s ready for important minutes. That combination of poor results and lack of trust from the coaches is concerning.
I’m not arguing that the team should give up on Koekkoek completely. I do think, however, that expectations for the type of player he can be need to dampened significantly compared to where they were as recently as last year. If he became a useful third-pairing defender, I think that would be a success.
The best case scenario that I can see for him this year is that he takes Coburn’s spot on the third pair. In that scenario, the defensive group might look something like:
Hedman - Anton Stralman
McDonagh - Sergachev
Koekkoek - Dan Girardi
This has some obvious challenges given what we know about the coaching staff. It would require them to play Sergachev in the top-4 on the right side, which they haven’t shown that they feel comfortable with that yet. It also requires benching Coburn who has been a staple in the lineup for the last several years for better or worse.
On the positive side, it aligns with the team’s tendency to pair an offensive-minded player with a defensive one on all three pairs. I don’t think the coaches would ever use a pairing of Koekkoek and Sergachev, even in limited minutes. So if Sergachev is on the third pair, that almost certainly relegates Koekkoek to the press box. If they decide to push Sergachev up in the lineup, that opens up the opportunity to play Koekkoek with a defensively responsible (from the coaches’ perspective) partner.
The challenge for Koekkoek long term is exactly the one that he faces now on the Lightning. Third-pairing left-handed defender is one of the least valuable positions in the NHL. Players who can fill that role are always available. Most teams either have prospects (Sergachev) they want to try in that role or aging players (Coburn) at the end of contracts who need to play those sheltered minutes.
That doesn’t leave much room for players in their mid-twenties like Koekkoek to find roster spots. This season could be his last chance to secure one of those spots in Tampa. If he can’t find consistent playing time, it will be tough for the Lightning to justify keeping him next summer. And from Koekkoek’s perspective, he might begin pushing the team to let him move on to a new opportunity if he hasn’t already.