Given Brayden Point’s graduation out of the Under 25 bracket, it’s now time to unveil our #1 ranked player in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization: Mikhail Sergachev. It was unanimous from the Raw Charge staff, and near-unanimous from the reader-base that Sergachev takes over the top spot given his performance, pedigree, and impact on Tampa Bay’s back-to-back championships. Initially viewed as an offensive-oriented defensive prospect, Sergachev took great strides year after year to hone his defensive acumen to eventually become the two-way force he is today. Not every offensively gifted defenseman is willing to do that so early in their career, but Sergachev did just that to help establish what is arguably the best left defensive core in the NHL.
There have been few players I’ve enjoyed watching develop more than Mikhail Sergachev over the past four years. His arrival during the 2017 offseason through the Jonathan Drouin trade was a shockwave for the Lightning faithful. Drouin was viewed as a future piece of Tampa Bay’s core, an offensive playmaker tailored to what they do best. His performance during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the 2016-2017 regular season provided a lot of optimism for what his future would hold. Then June 15, 2017, rolled around and changed the trajectory of the Lightning far more than anyone anticipated.
Since Jeff Vinik took over as owner of the Lightning, the franchise has established itself as one of the premier organizations in developing forward talent. However, developing defensemen has been a consistent struggle. General Manager Steve Yzerman understood this and made a bet; they could replace Drouin’s offensive capabilities with their own internal forward prospects in exchange for a blue-chip defensive prospect. Thus, the Drouin for Sergachev trade.
In a way, it was a challenge to the Lightning development system. The last “prime” defensive prospect the organization had was Slater Koekkoek, and that ended in disappointment. In Sergachev, the Lightning put themselves in the position to fully develop the young defender in their mold. Four years later, they’ve reaped the rewards.
Sergachev (and not long after Erik Cernak) would become the first defenseman Tampa Bay could champion as homegrown under Vinik’s ownership. His development enabled the Lightning to create the defensive corps that anchored two Stanley Cups. For the price given up, I think we can all say it was worth it in the end.
It’s curious to see Sergachev’s defensive WAR decline this season, and I feel that is due to his relatively average to below-average zone entry defense. He appears to be content with giving up the blueline and keeping players to the outside. Watching him play over the years gives me the impression he wants to squeeze the forward against the boards, force a turnover and quickly transition the puck up the ice; something he excels at.
Given how good he is on the offensive side, I feel this is a reasonable trade-off since his role is geared more toward an offensive playstyle. With Cernak and Ryan McDonagh being the true defensive pairing, it enables Sergachev, and also Victor Hedman, to open their games up more and do what they’re best at. Still, a more aggressive approach at blueline defense can only help the Russian defender.
What’s likely endeared him to Lightning fans is his increased physicality and willingness to set the tone by dropping the gloves over the years.
Make no mistake though, the Russian defender has plenty of offensive skill to balance himself out.
Expect Sergachev to remain in a Lightning uniform for the foreseeable future. He loves the city, the city loves him, he’s a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, and he’s still 23 years old. Let that sink in, he’s been with the Lightning for four seasons and he’s 23. It’s comical that he’s this good at such a young age. Nabbing him is one of the shrewdest trades in recent NHL memory.