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Ten Things We Want to See Next Season #4: More Minutes for Mikhail Sergachev

Mikhail Sergachev is ready for a top four role

Montreal Canadiens v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Last season at this time, one of this discussions surrounding the Lightning was about whether Mikhail Sergachev would spend the season in Tampa or whether he would go back to junior hockey for another developmental season. Because of his age, he wasn’t eligible for the AHL last season. I even wrote a whole article about that decision that looks ridiculous in retrospect.

Not only did Sergachev stick in Tampa Bay, he was one of the best players on the blue line for the Bolts last season. His rookie season at age 19 was about as good as one could hope. Part of his success was due to his deployment. The coaching staff was careful to put him in situations where he was likely to succeed and heavily managed his minutes.

That meant limiting his ice time at 5v5, giving him lots of power play time, keeping him in the offensive zone as much as possible, minimizing the time he was asked to protect a lead, and pairing him with defensive oriented partners to help cover for any mistakes he might make.

So, how did that work? Well, pretty darn well. To get a quick overview of Sergachev’s season, let’s look at his player card from HockeyViz. The deployment information from the previous paragraph is contained at the bottom of the card but let’s shift our focus to the top of the card.

In his sheltered usage, Sergachev put up outstanding numbers. His rate stats were in line with those of a first-pair defender. He scored at even strength and on the power play. He drove play both in terms of shots and goals. He couldn’t do much more with the opportunity he received.

The difficult part about processing these numbers is figuring out how to weigh the results in the context of his sheltered deployment. Fortunately, we have some excellent all-in-one metrics that can help us weight all of these factors appropriately and arrive at one number to help get a cleaner picture of what his results say about his play.

Both Evolving Hockey and Corsica Hockey have Wins Above Replacement (WAR) stats that tell us how many more wins Sergachev provides the Lightning than a replacement level player would contribute. A replacement level player is defined as one who could be easily replaced with minimal investment by the team. Imagine the 7th defender on an NHL roster.

According to Evolving Hockey, Sergachev ranked 42nd in WAR among NHL defenders last season. According to Corsica, he ranked 54th. Either way, that lands him in the range of a top pairing defender. That’s not quite as dominant as his raw stats looked on the player card but still impressive for a rookie.

Given how strong his results were, it begs the question of whether his play earned him more opportunities as the year progressed. To answer that, we can use an ice time chart from HockeyViz.

Looking at his all situations ice time, the answer to that question is a clear, “no.” He maxed out at fourth in ice time among defenders during the middle of the season and that only lasted a few games. For most of the season, he played bottom pair minutes. That initially seems like it might been an indictment of the coaches but let’s look a little further.

The next chart is again from HockeyViz. This one can be a little busy if you haven’t seen it before but we’re going to focus on the third strip here. We saw in the chart above that Sergachev’s ice time peaked in the middle of the season but decreased after that. The third strip below shows his shot differential over the course of the season. The black shading means his on-ice shot differential was positive and the red means it was negative.

Sergachev only has one area of red on that strip for the entire season. And, what do you know, it lines up perfectly with his peak in ice time from the previous chart. This suggests that when the coaches pushed up his ice time, he struggled. That could just be a coincidence. It could also be that he needed more time to adjust to the increased role. But in the short term, he didn’t excel in response to more minutes.

In that area of red, we see a small gap in the lines. That represents the only games he was healthy scratched during the season. When he returned to the lineup, his playing time went back to where it was earlier in the season and his results returned to their previous level of excellence.

Heading into this season, one of the keys for the Lightning will be whether Sergachev can take the next big step in his development. Late in the year, he switched from playing on the left side to playing on the right where he often played in juniors. The Lightning are stacked on the left side of defense with Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh locking down the top two spots and Braydon Coburn and Slater Koekkoek competing for the third pair spot.

The right side isn’t nearly as strong with Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi being the only certainties. Jake Dotchin is still an option but fell out of favor with the coaches last season. The best case scenario for the Lightning this season would be for Sergachev to take over the second pair right defense. McDonagh is a good fit as a veteran partner who would offer plenty of defensive support while also being able to keep up with Sergachev offensively.

The first question heading into camp will be whether the coaches are willing to let Sergachev move up the lineup. And if they are, the second question will be whether the twenty year old is ready to seize that opportunity.

Last year, he showed that he could dominate in sheltered usage but seemed to hit a wall when given a bigger role. This year, he’ll need to break through that wall if he wants to take the next step toward fulfilling his potential.

Mikhail Sergachev’s ceiling is out of sight. He has high-end top-pair skills. Getting to that peak starts with earning a bigger role in camp this year. So yes, we want to see him get more minutes in 2018-2019. Because if he’s getting more minutes and playing the way he did last year, the Lightning could have one of the best top four defensive units in the NHL next season.