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Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev: Different paths could end in similar outcomes

Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

There has been a lot of talk over the past month or so about Mikhail Sergachev. And rightfully so. He’s showing more confidence in his game and is becoming a defenseman that the Tampa Bay Lightning coaching staff can lean on. When Ryan McDonagh left Saturday’s game early, Sergachev came just three seconds short of setting a new career high for TOI.

He’s also approaching that threshold where we expect defensemen to start “getting” it. Last night, he played in his 200th NHL career game. We usually talk about 300 games being that threshold, but for some players, it comes earlier than others. For Victor Hedman, that also came around the 200 game mark, though he had a little bit extra work in the KHL because of the 2012-13 lockout when he played 26 games for Barys Astana with 22 points. When he came back after the lockout, he recorded 20 points in just 44 games. He went from 0.32 points per game to 0.45. He picked up even further the following season recording 55 points in 75 games in 2013-14 and hasn’t gone below 38 points in a season since.

It got me to thinking though about what the differences have been for the two defensemen in their developmental path. Especially since Sergachev is looking like he’s well on his way toward being a Norris trophy contender sometime in the next few years, if not sooner. The Lightning also couldn’t have timed the acquisition of Sergachev better, trading for him as Hedman entered his age-27 season in the midst of his prime. They’ve timed it out here so that as Sergachev is really hitting his prime around age-23 or age-24, Hedman will be in his early 30s and presumably starting to tail off from his highs.

Before the NHL

Hedman was in his second year of playing in the SHL in Sweden when he was drafted. He didn’t put up much offense as a 17 year old, but played 39 games with four points. In his draft year, he started to pick up the points posting 21 points in 43 games for MODO Hockey. Hedman set a record for U19 Defensemen scoring in the SHL with his 21 points and only Rasmus Dahlin has come close since with 20 points in 41 games in 2017-18, though he was a U18 player at the time. After being drafted 2nd overall, Hedman came straight to the NHL to play for the Lightning.

Sergachev, on the other hand, came to play in the OHL prior to the draft. He recorded 57 points in 67 games and was drafted 9th overall by the Montreal Canadiens. He played a few games for Montreal and then was sent back to the Widnsor Spitfires where he compiled 43 points in 50 games and won a Memorial Cup. That summer, he was traded to the Lightning for Jonathan Drouin and stepped in to the NHL lineup as a 19 year old.

Scoring: Even Strength vs. Power Play

Sergachev was given the benefit of power play time on the second unit almost as soon as he set foot on an NHL ice surface. Hedman had to work his way into it. Over his first three seasons, Hedman put up just eight assists on the power play. I think we sometimes forget this, but it wasn’t until 2016-17 that Hedman really started to get significant time on the first power play and started putting up big point totals with the advantage.

The second unit was really powered by Sergachev in his rookie season as he picked up three goals and 13 assists on the power play. Last season, the second unit struggled while the first unit was lighting it up and he only managed to pick up six points, all assists. This season, he’s rediscovering some of that groove from his rookie season and has picked up four goals and four assists through the first half of the season.

At even strength, their scoring has been pretty similar. Hedman recorded four goals and 15 assists as a rookie and followed that with three goals and 20 assists in his sophomore season. Sergachev got six goals at even strength in both of his first two seasons and recorded 18 and 20 assists respectively.

Teammates

But here is where we get to the point I really wanted to talk about and dive into.

Teammates. Mentors. Role models.

Mikhail Sergachev has been surrounded through his first three seasons by some of the best role models you could possibly ask for around a young defenseman. Hedman was already a Norris finalist, would win the Norris in Sergachev’s rookie season, and then be a finalist once again last year. Ryan McDonagh came over late in Sergachev’s rookie season, but is a bona fide top defenseman who plays very responsibly in the defensive zone.

Anton Stralman, Sergachev’s one time partner, was one of the most underrated defensemen in the league and a superb defender. Even Braydon Coburn, who has had his struggles this season, is a defensively stout blueliner with nearly 1,000 games experience under his belt. Add in Kevin Shattenkirk this season who plays the game very similarly to Sergachev, and he’s had another great defenseman to learn from.

Then you take a look at the players that surrounded Hedman during his first three seasons. Kurtis Foster bounced around the league and came to the Lightning in 2009-10 as a 28 year old with 186 games of experience. Andrej Meszaros was also a young defenseman with just three seasons under his belt before coming to the Lightning and he was never a top defenseman, though a solid top four guy. Mike Lundin was likewise a young defenseman without much time in the NHL before Hedman arrived.

The only real veterans that Hedman had to learn from in those first few years were Mattias Ohlund, Eric Brewer, Brett Clark, Pavel Kubina, and Marc-Andre Bergeron. Ohlund was brought in specifically to mentor Hedman as a fellow Swede and capable defender. Ohlund was never at the level that Hedman or even McDonagh have been at, but he was a very well respected player on the back end of his career. He was a solid offensive contributor recording at least 30 points in his career six times and at least 20 points in every season until he came to the Lightning. More importantly, he average 24:59 with the Vancouver Canucks and was consistently over 25 minutes until he hit his 30s.

Eric Brewer is more similar to Braydon Coburn in this situation as a top four defenseman that was solid defensively, and just average offensively. He had a lot of experience though and had been the Captain of the St. Louis Blues when he was acquired at the trade deadline in 2010-11. Brett Clark was also a decent defenseman that was 34 when he joined the Lightning in 2010-11. Pavel Kubina and Marc-Andre Bergeron were interesting because they were good offensive defenseman, especially Bergeron, and were good on the power play.

But when you take that list of players, and compare it to the players that have surrounded Mikhail Sergachev, it’s hard not to notice how much better of a group he has. Not to mention just having a better team overall on the ice at forward and in net. While coaches certainly play a role in how a player is developed, I don’t think you can overlook the example that his teammates set for him. And it’s the little things that matter. How to prepare for a game. How to communicate effectively. Where to be. Understanding the system from a player’s perspective. Those are all things that a young player can pick up and learn from the veterans around him.

If he’s willing. And I think that what we’ve seen from Sergachev is that he is more than willing, but eager to learn and get better. He has a hunger and a competitiveness to be the best. His offensive skills have been there since the beginning. Now his defense is catching up to that end of his game. If he can continue to progress and become more and more like Victor Hedman, it won’t be long before we, and the entire NHL, are talking about him as a candidate for the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the league.