The Tampa Bay Lightning are trying to trade defender Slater Koekkoek, according to Elliotte Friedman in his 31 thoughts article today. The twenty-four year old defender is currently on a conditioning stint with the Syracuse Crunch. That will end this weekend and he’ll need to return to the team.
With J.T. Miller close to returning from injury, the team will have to make room on the roster. Sending Erik Cernak back to Syracuse would be the easiest way to buy time in the short term, but he’s shown he’s ready to be an NHL player now. Demoting him would be difficult to justify. The other option would be to try to get Danick Martel through waivers to Syracuse, but the Flyers would almost certainly claim him since they still have the right to do so and send him directly to the AHL.
Koekkoek has struggled to find a place in Tampa’s lineup since suffering shoulder injuries after being drafted tenth overall in 2012. He will still be a restricted free agent this summer, so a team might see some value if they think he has potential as a reclamation project.
In his NHL minutes, Koekkoek hasn’t done enough in Tampa to justify a spot in the lineup. He’s consistently been at the bottom of the depth chart due to poor results.
This is from our original piece about him being sent to Syracuse:
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.
We also wrote an in-depth article on Koekkoek and his future last summer:
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.
The news that the team is shopping him shouldn’t be a surprise. But it does raise an interesting question. The Lightning have three unrestricted free agents on the blue line next summer. Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, and Dan Girardi all have expiring contracts. Even if the Lightning re-sign one of them, they still have an open spot on defense.
Koekkoek seemed like an obvious candidate to fill that role at an inexpensive price. Even considering his struggles, he should be a fine option as a left handed third pairing defender. If the Lightning are ready to move on from him completely, that suggests they have someone else in mind for that role.
Neither Dominik Masin or Cal Foote seems likely to make the roster next season based on their play in Syracuse this year. One or both could show major improvement in the second half, and Foote has improved lately. But, barring that, trading Koekkoek would leave the Lightning with only four defenders under contract and no immediately obvious replacements.
Bringing back more than one of Stralman, Coburn, or Girardi seems suboptimal given their ages and the cost of unrestricted free agents compared to a restricted free agent like Koekkoek. This is especially true in the context of the cap crunch the team will be facing next summer.
The return for Koekkoek in a trade will be minimal. A late round pick is the most anyone should expect.
Lightning General Manager Julien Brisebois has a team so deep that he will, at some point, need to move someone off the NHL roster. Cernak would be the easiest. Martel would seem to be the player with the least value. But from Friedman’s report, it sounds like the team doesn’t see a future in the organization for Koekkoek. If that’s the case, he might be the one to go.