Top 25 Under 25: #17 Slater Koekkoek

The oft-injured defenseman is the first point of controversy in our countdown of the Top 25 players under the age of 25.

We all knew it had to happen sooner or later.

Up until this point, the inaugural Top 25 Under 25 series on Raw Charge has gone swimmingly. Most of us tend to agree with each other about every player, who the near misses are, and who the players ranked 18-25 should be. So until now, it's been all sunshine and rainbows and consensus.

And now we get to the fun part.

Defenseman Slater Koekkoek, drafted in 2012 (1st round, 10th overall) from the OHL Peterborough Petes, has become something of a "lightning rod" player for our ranking panel (pardon the pun) as we weighed his tremendous offensive upside against his defensive liabilities and inability to stay on the ice and playing in meaningful situations.

Here's how the panel ranked Koekkoek:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
16 23 19 NR 16 12

As you can see, there's quite a disparity regarding his ranking, with Raw Charge Managing Editor John Fontana placing him near the bottom of his list at #23 while Mike Gallimore of Bolt Prospects and Bolt Statistics nearly had him in his top 10, a gap of 11 spots, the highest we've seen yet among our rankers.

John Fontana answers for his low ranking:

The Top 25 Under 25 rankings are a mixed of pro's and prospects, I think we've touched on explaining that in the past. If not in the actual context of the rankings then in the comments after articles are published. Slater is... Well... He's one of those guys who is risk-versus-reward. The risk being his injury issues that have led to him being shut down in juniors not once, but several times.

Is it truly being reasonable to give a high system ranking to someone who has played all of 68 games the past two seasons combined? The only reason I'd do that is by focusing on potential over current performance and take into consideration he's still in juniors.

It's like the Stamkos versus Crosby conundrum for fantasy hockey players: Who do you take first overall, the consistently healthy performer or the injury-prone wunderkind? In this case, we're talking defense and with the fact Slater isn't a steady hand (with thanks to those injuries), I thought guys throughout the system at various positions should be ranked before him. That's not attacking his ability - when healthy - to be a solid defenseman, or his skill set. It's acknowledging that if you're looking at the system - there are other guys contributing more consistently than Slater.

I realize "potential" has to be a part of some of our rankings,, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that other factors have to be considered here. A top draft pick defenseman with injury issues is a concern before an asset. I'm not writing him off, I'm just taking his limited performances into consideration.

Mike Gallimore provides the counterpoint:

There are some obvious parallels between Slater Koekkoek and Brett Connolly: both centerpieces for their respective juniors clubs were injured during their draft year, a setback that resulted in extra scrutiny and which caused their stock to drop. There was a healthy amount of second-guessing Connolly being selected 6th overall (ahead of Jeff Skinner, or, with many expecting the club to add a blue-chip defensive prospect, Cam Fowler) and, likewise, some head-scratching and genuine surprise at the choice of Koekkoek at 10th overall in the 2012 draft. There was a run on defensemen (7 of the first 9 picks) leading up to Koekkoek coming off the board but that didn't stop some from questioning the wisdom of passing up the opportunity to take one of the two highly-rated forwards, Mikhail Grigorenko (close friend and teammate of the Lightning's 2011 2nd-rounder Nikita Kucherov) and Filip Forsberg, still available, or either of Cody Ceci or Olli Maata, defensemen who were, like Koekkoek, widely expected to go in the middle of the 1st round.

Connolly, of course, labored in the NHL the year after being drafted, with the club uneasy about returning him to a poor Prince George squad in the WHL. With Koekkoek, however, there was no space to carry him and he was relegated to spending last season back in juniors as the key piece for the Peterborough Petes, a team which was expected to and did struggle mightily in the OHL. Production aside, what followed was a disappointing campaign that was dogged by reports of undisciplined play and rumors (accurate or not) that called Koekkoek's character into question and fueled speculation he had demanded a trade -- which did eventually happen as he was sent to the Windsor Spitfires, for whom he played two games -- and was finished by another shoulder injury. In short, last season was close to an unmitigated disaster.

This is the context, or baggage, that casts a shadow over Koekkoek and has spread the seed of doubt. When you watch the young rearguard in action on the ice, though, you can see why the organization is so high on him. At 6'2" and 180+ pounds, he's certainly lithe: the feet are quick, the stride is powerful and the movement is fluid. Be it accelerating to lead or jump into a rush skating, or pivoting to switch directions during a transition in play or moving laterally to close a gap, skating is, in my eyes, his biggest strength and should remain so even as he bulks up a bit. He's not a hit machine but Koekkoek isn't necessarily shy when it comes to physical play. He's at his best, defensively, relying on positioning and wide reach to disrupt attacks from the opposition and moving the play back up-ice.

His skating ability complements strong offensive instincts which, coupled with his heavy shot, gives him a somewhat unique blend of two-way talent among the organization's pool of defenders. There's a flamboyance in Koekkoek's play, especially with the puck, that really sets him apart. It's there as he alternately cruises or steams through the neutral zone; he might be the most self-assured puck-handler the organization has had at the position since Dan Boyle and it's not surprising to see him head deep into the opposition's end before circling back. It's important to keep in mind that he's still a superb prospect with a high ceiling at a position that the organization has made a concerted effort to bolster but is still arguably, in terms of depth, its weakest. There's plenty left to be done but, considering the Lightning's recent track record in crafting prospects and keeping in mind, in particular, how sharp Brett Connolly has looked in training camp and in preseason matches on the heels of an excellent season with Syracuse, it seems very likely this staff, on Koekkoek completely enters the fold, will be able to polish the considerable but raw ability he possesses into steady technique while molding him into an impact professional.

The debate on Koekkoek isn't just in house, however. It extends all the way back to when he was drafted 10th overall, which left many fans, pundits, and scouts scratching their heads. At the time, Gallimore called it a reach, and the writers and commenters at SB Nation Edmonton Oilers blog Copper and Blue were not fond of the pick either. Corey Pronman, a go-to for prospect analysis and evaluation, praised Koekkoek's skillset but simulatenously wondered if 10th was a bit of a reach, especially for a club with two 1st round picks:

Koekkoek, finally fully healthy, just started the regular season with the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. He's wearing an A on his jersey for them this year and has had quite a nice start to the new season after rehabbing his shoulder (again) with a goal and a +5 rating in just his first two games played back in juniors.

Despite some of the doubts about selecting him 10th overall, Koekkoek has displayed (when healthy) tremendous on-ice vision, confidence with the puck, and impressive four-way skating ability. He's the type of freewheeling defenseman that can carry the puck out of trouble in the defensive end, through defenders in the neutral zone and into the offensive third for a scoring chance; but he's also quick and powerful enough on his skates to recover from offensive excursions, which is a valuable quality for a rearguard in today's NHL.

While in training camp, the Lightning coaches did seem to focus in on his defensive game (as they did with almost every play) but, at the same time, they encouraged Koekkoek (and every player) to continue to play "his game", which means taking chances and not being afraid to carry the puck. He'll likely need to be paired with a more "stay-at-home" defenseman in the future.

Putting together a full, healthy, and productive season in juniors this year has to be on Koekkoek's mind, who already has an entry-level contract with Tampa Bay and will look to turn pro next year. There's an outside chance he jumps straight to the big club if he impresses during this year and next offseason, but far more likely is at least one full year with the AHL Syracuse Crunch to make sure Koekkoek's shoulder can hold up against a rigorous pro season and against stronger, bigger veteran pro forwards.