Was there ever any doubt that Mikhail Sergachev would defend his top spot as the top Lightning “prospect” under the age of 25? Not really. He swept the writers’ top spot and was number one for 91% of the readers. That’s as dominating numbers as Brayden Point back when he was a youngster. It’s also kind of weird to realize that Sergachev is still one of the younger players on the roster.
It seems like he has been in the league forever, and in a sense he has. Sergachev has logged 362 games at the NHL level, won two Stanley Cups and is 22nd in franchise points (#MikhailMilestones). We should know what type of player he is, but at the same time he doesn’t seem like he’s reached his full potential.
The good news is that he is still young. As the roster now stands, the only players younger than Sergy are Brandon Hagel and Cal Foote. That may change if Gabriel Fortier or Cole Koepke make the roster, but the general point still stands - Mikhail Sergachev is still young enough to have room to grow.
After all of that time with the Bolts (five seasons) what type of player do we think Sergachev actually is? A big, smooth-skating defensemen with offensive instincts and a bit of a nasty streak. We also know that every third or fourth game he’s going to make a boneheaded play that will leave everyone scratching their head.
It seems most of his hiccups on ice come from being overaggressive. Either he pinches in at an inopportune time or tries to make a pass that doesn’t have a high-level of success. It’s not necessarily a bad trait, even in a league where coaches lean towards blandness and making the safe play. Experience usually helps weed out those mistakes and as Sergachev has aged those mistakes have lessened to a degree.
It’ll important that he continues on a positive track because, as we all know, his responsibilities are going to skyrocket this season. With Ryan McDonagh now patrolling the blue line in Nashville, Sergachev is locked in on a top-four role with the Lightning. He’ll be spending most of his time on the second pairing, but Coach Cooper will likely flip him to the right side from time to time within games with Victor Hedman to get that extra bit of offense out on the ice.
Sergachev will be seeing a lot stiffer competition this season than he has in the past. Coach Cooper usually used the pairing of McDonagh and Erik Cernak as his shutdown duo, mainly because that was what they were good at doing and it also freed up Victor Hedman a bit.
The above chart compares Sergachev (on the left) and McDonagh (on the right) at 5v5 over the last three seasons. As you can see McD excelled at suppressing the opponent’s offense while not providing much offensively. Sergachev was kind of on the opposite scale, above water on the expected goals, but well under water in shot share.
The big question going into the season will be if Sergachev can alter his game enough to prevent the other team from generating chances while also keeping that unique quality that makes him dangerous in the offensive zone as well. If he is paired with Cernak, which is the most likely solution to start the season he will have some help, but will still need to figure things out. As The Athletic stated in their Tampa Bay Lightning preview,
“The challenge will be acclimating on the fly while likely going up against elite forwards. Few players had a tougher workload than Cernak last season, and it’s a role he probably continues to hold moving forward. It’s not the workload that Sergachev’s had to manage so far in his NHL career, he’s been pretty sheltered. Now, he’s going to be exposed.”
That exposure may just be the thing he needs to develop his game. With some players you never quite know what they are capable of until they are thrown into the deep end. The Lightning are definitely banking on the belief that he can step up to the role having signed him to an eight-year extension.
So what will define a successful season for Sergachev? That kind of depends. He’s never going to be the shot-suppressor that McDonagh was, but if he can improve that part of his game even slightly, the offensive upside that he brings will more than offset any liability he has defensively.
Personally, I would like to see him try a little less. That may seem counterproductive, but few of his mistakes come from sheer laziness. In the past it seems he has tried to do so much that he puts himself into bad situations. He also tends to get into a funk if he plays poorly, and is one of his own sharpest critics. If he could relax and trust his natural ability, things will take care of themselves. He has improved much of his game tremendously since he was an intriguing 19-year-old playing in 79 games for the Lightning way back in 2017-18.
He would also benefit from an increased awareness when he has the puck in his own zone. Occasionally he becomes a bit lax with puck security and has either lost control of the puck to a forecheck or seen a pass picked off. With cleaner exits out of the zone it will help transition the Lightning offense while he is on the ice.
With an increased role on the blueline it’s also likely that we could see a boost in that offensive production. A 45-50 point season isn’t out of the realm of possibility and would help offset some of the loss from Ondrej Palat leaving.
As he hits the prime years of his career the Lightning do need him to hit that next level that he has shown glimpses of so often in the past. If that does happen we should see a smooth transition from the Victor Hedman Era to the Mikhail Sergachev Era on the Tampa Bay defense.