This past season felt like a true coming of age transition for Mikhail Sergachev. His offensive capabilities were always world-class, but his defensive game was the area he needed to hone. During the 2019-2020 season, he did just that as he became one of Tampa Bay’s best two-way defenders. In a sense, he became the exact player everyone expected him to be after his acquisition in the Jonathan Drouin trade with the Montreal Canadiens.
This isn’t to say the young Russian was a disappointment during his first two years with the Lightning: not even close. However, it was apparent during his rookie and sophomore campaign’s that head coach Jon Cooper was sheltering his minutes. When a team has defensemen like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh on the depth chart, it makes sense to slowly ease a younger player into their role.
Sergachev, for all his offensive prowess, struggled in the early part of the season. He wasn’t reading the play as well as he had during the latter part of 2018-2019, and put himself in poor positions more often than not. However, after the Lightning swept their Global series matchup against the Buffalo Sabres, things started to click for himself and the team.
Cooper and the coaching staff saw this improvement and rewarded it with more ice-time (20 minutes a night) and responsibilities (penalty kill, late-game situations, quarterbacking the top power-play) during the season and playoffs. The payoff was immediately clear as Sergachev morphed into a physical nightmare for opposing teams to match up against.
His skating was always good, but he would too often become over-reliant on this trait and it would hurt him in certain situations. As Sergachev’s confidence increased, so did his physical play. So, instead of trying to squeeze offensive players with his skating ability, he would simply remove them from the play (physically), recover the puck, and move it up ice.
He didn’t skimp on the offensive side either as he finished his third season with 34 points (establishing a new career-high for goals); stringing together three consecutive years of at least 30 points. That’s impressive for any defensemen to accomplish, and it’s something Sergachev has done in his first three season’s in the NHL.
However, as impressive as his counting numbers are, I want to draw attention to the subtle things Sergachev does in the offensive zone that make him special.
Sergachev’s play on this goal embodies what he provides in the offensive zone when he isn’t the primary shooter. He’s able to beat the defender to a rimmed puck, shield it, and deftly pass it to an open teammate (Nikita Kucherov in this example). There aren’t many defensemen in the NHL who can make a play like this with an opponent barreling down on them.
A defensemen’s ability to read the play and position themselves is paramount to succeed in the NHL, no matter what zone they’re in. Here, Sergachev reads Yanni Gourde, and the Islanders’ defense, to find open space where he punishes them for ignoring his movement.
The no-look across the royal road pass is a thing of beauty every time someone pulls it off, and Sergachev is no exception. The Islanders defense has to respect him as a shooter in this situation, but the subtle thing he does here is how he manages to freeze two defenders just by gliding into the left faceoff circle. He forces Scott Mayfield to challenge him while also catching Brock Nelson repositioning. Before Mayfield can effectively defend him and before Nelson resets his feet, Sergachev feeds a pass to Kucherov who then fires a pass to Ondrej Palat for a goal.
These are just small tidbits from the Stanley Cup run that show some of the subtle actions he takes to help Tampa Bay in the offensive zone.
The above chart from Hockeyviz helps visualize how effective the Lightning was with Sergachev on the ice this season; in terms of shot volume and location. The astonishing thing is he’s only 22-years old and is still going to improve as he ages. He’s always been a positive possession player, but a big knock on him was the competition he played against. This past season, he chipped away at that criticism as he solidified himself in the defensive zone.
Interestingly, it was his pairing with Kevin Shattenkirk, another offensively minded defenseman, that became a surprisingly effective duo. During the regular season, they controlled possession with a CF% of 53%, quality with an xGF% of 56%, out-chanced the opposition 316-235 (this pairing had the most scoring chances of any pairing the Lightning ran all season), and generated the most high danger chances for with 129 (the next closest was the Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak pairing at 95). Their combination of skating, positioning, and control helped provide the Lightning with two stable pairings throughout the season (the Lightning have long just thrown defensive partners with Hedman who continues to carry whomever he is with to absurd numbers possession-wise).
It’s thanks to Sergachev’s growth that the Lightning were able to hoist the Stanley Cup this season, and he was rewarded for his contributions with a three year $14.4 million contract to remain in Tampa Bay. He was the first RFA to sign of the three major players in that group (Anthony Cirelli and Cernak being the other two). With his re-signing, it reinforces the strength of Tampa Bay’s defense on the left side and opens the door for Sergachev to eventually supplant McDonagh as the number two defensemen on the roster.
So, where does that leave us in the rankings? Similar to yesterday’s piece on Cirelli, Sergachev’s placing was identical to last season; both in the eyes of the readers and writers.
Stop and think about this for a moment; the Lightning have a perennial Norris candidate in Victor Hedman leading the way for Tampa Bay’s defense, but right behind him is Sergachev providing a level of play that stabilizes the overall quality of their defensive corps and he is still only 22 years old. Imagine how good he is going to be when he is in his prime. If the Lightning manage to keep Sergachev long term, they have the succession plan already in place when Hedman begins to decline in his 30’s (and that is still an if he declines).