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Tampa Bay Lightning Top 25 Under 25, #14 Slater Koekkoek, the enigma of the Lightning defense

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the RawCharge community. Ten writers and 106 readers ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.

This past season, many of the Lightning faithful were anxiously waiting for Slater Koekkoek to break into the team’s top six defense rotation and make his draft position back in 2012 not look poor in hindsight. He was ranked sixth in last years Top 25 list, and has plummeted down to 14th this year (I voted him at 18, which surprisingly wasn’t the lowest). Most of the readers are still quite high on the former 10th overall pick, but many of us at Raw Charge have grown a bit less enthusiastic about Koekkoek.

Unfortunately, Koekkoek only dressed for 35 games last season and saw an average of 11 minutes of ice time. Given this, some have thrown in the towel on the defender, but others still believe there is a quality NHL defenseman within him. Is either perspective accurate? Well, let’s dive in and take a look at Koekkoek and see what we can figure out.

All stats are taken from Corsica or Natural Stat Trick

Let’s get the bad out of the way. Averaging 11 minutes a night isn’t good no matter which way you slice it. There were even some games where he wouldn’t break 10 minutes. This, to me, signifies two things; either the coaching staff doesn’t trust him or the NHL is too much for him and the coaching staff is trying to ease him into the league.

His even strength possession numbers were the second-worse on the team with a Corsi For% (CF%) of 48.31%. Additionally, his Relative CF% (Rel CF%) was the worst at -3.82 (this means the team performed worse with him on the ice than when he was off). When you compare this to his two primary competitors for ice-time it doesn’t look pretty—Jake Dotchin 51.88% CF%/1.03 Rel CF% and Mikhail Sergachev 54.26 CF%/3.27 Rel CF%. Koekkoek’s numbers are not close to worst in the league, but his overall impact on the game was the worst of every defender the Lightning used last season (including Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, and Andrej Sustr).

Now for the good. Koekkoek had the third highest primary points per game at 1.14, behind only Sergachev (1.29) and Victor Hedman (1.23). Additionally, his GF% was 54.29, which is quite good, but placed him sixth out of nine defensemen due to the Lightning being the highest scoring team in the league. A caveat to this stat: his Relative GF% was -3.98 (which isn’t even close to the worst Rel GF% of -18.93 by Andrej Sustr), so the team still scored more when he wasn’t on the ice. However, he was still scoring at a rate that was solid overall (in comparison to the league). Koekkoek did this while only starting 48% of his shifts in the offensive zone (he started most of his shifts in the neutral zone).

(God, that second goal celebration is wonderful.)

From all of this, I draw that Koekkoek is definitely a player that can provide a positive impact; even though he has seen limited minutes and has a few other areas that bring up some concerns. Additionally, he’s still one of the better skating defenders the Lightning have on the roster. Unfortunately, the limited playing time obfuscates his numbers to a degree.  Admittedly, I dropped Koekkoek hard in this season’s rankings because, at 24 years old, I don’t think he is going to drastically improve. Most top four defensemen in the NHL are already at that point by the time they’re 24 (or they’re pushing for it). Sure, there are late bloomers that we can point to, but Koekkoek’s underlying numbers tell two different stories.

On one end, he isn’t much of a possession driver in comparison to his team. On the other, he makes the most of the limited ice time he does get by scoring. It’s hard to put him higher on the list given how sparsely he was utilized and the impact – or lack of one – he had when he was on the ice. I felt 18 was an okay middle ground for him given how many other young players simply outplayed him. Remember, Sergachev was limited in ice-time as well for large portions of the season until he grew into his role a bit. Conversely, Sergachev was definitely given a far longer leash for mistakes than Koekkoek ever was.

There were some rumblings that Koekkoek could possibly want a change of scenery for a chance to play more consistently, but that went out the window the moment he signed his one year deal this off season. I really don’t know how he is going to get ice-time with the Lightning’s defensive corps being Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Sergachev, Girardi, and Coburn. He’s battling with Dotchin for the seventh defensive spot and I just don’t see, based off the overall sample size we have, how he pushes at least two defenders out of his way to secure a starting spot.

Last season didn’t provide a concise answer on Slater Koekkoek. Is he a possession drag? Is he a limited-scoring defensemen that needs sheltered minutes? I don’t know about y’all, but 35 games and 11 minutes a night is not enough to say “yay” or “nay” on Koekkoek just yet. I hope he comes into this season and blows everyone away (I wouldn’t say I’m an eternal optimist, but I never wish for players to outright suck). I do believe Koekkoek’s mixed showing last season was more related to the coaching staff than something specific about him. With two new assistants coming in and Todd Richards taking over the defense, I’m hoping Koekkoek, and the Lightning defense in general, performs better next season and justifies his top 10 pick status.

Though, if the same thing happens with Koekkoek this season then I’m just throwing my hands up in the air and moving on.

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