The Tampa Bay Lightning are so far ahead of the rest of the NHL, it’s almost insulting, and the scary part is that we might not have seen this team at its best.
Or, at least, there’s mounting evidence that the Bolts are uncommonly well-suited if injuries or other curveballs head their way.
Such a thought comes to mind – and maybe puts a damper on trade deadline daydreaming for other teams – when you see Mikhail Sergachev starting to heat up.
Overall, it’s been a slightly disappointing season for the 20-year-old, at least as far as counting stats go. Last season, Sergachev inspired a ton of “Sergachev has x points compared to Jonathan Drouin” comments on his way to 40 points in 79 games despite averaging just 15:22 TOI. This season, those jokes have dried up (Drouin’s at 35 already), as the Russian defenseman’s been limited to 18 points.
But things are really coming around lately.
With a goal in Tuesday’s 2-0 win against the Stars, Sergachev now has five points (two goals, three assists) in his last five games. He also has six in his past seven.
That’s obviously a small sample size, but it’s remarkable just how much swagger you can see in Sergachev’s game. Consider this goal from Jan. 12, when Sergachev made a saucy fake-slapper before setting up an Ondrej Palat tally:
Sergachev is being bold, and good things are happening when he’s being bold:
Maybe just as importantly, Sergachev is clearly gaining the trust of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. Consider what he said on Jan. 12, via Joe Smith of The Athletic (sub required):
“It’s night and day from last year to this year,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s funny, he pointed a lot last year and was scoring goals. But there was so much about the game he had to learn, whether it was at the defensive end, where you’re supposed to be, and he’s done a great job this year. Last year, you had to dress seven ‘D’ to manage his minutes, there’s no need to do that anymore.”
Here’s a wild assumption: maybe Cooper needed that time as much as Sergachev did?
Cooper gives off the vibe of one of the NHL’s more progressive head coaches, yet he also struggled with the risk/reward part of Drouin’s game, and a lot of coaches tend to fixate on mistakes made by young players while letting similar mistakes go when it comes to veterans.
After all, Sergachev’s possession numbers were quite impressive last season, too — to the point that it was almost a little frustrating to see the Lightning struggle against, say, the Capitals and not loosen Sergachev’s leash a bit.
Either way, there’s no denying that Sergachev is more trusted. After starting a lopsided 70.2-percent of his shifts in the offensive zone in 2017-18, he’s down to a still-offense-leaning but more reasonable 54.3 percent this season, and he’s still a strong possession player, even relative to his talented teammates.
The Lightning should really see how far they can push things with Sergachev, actually.
With such a robust lead in the East, this should be a great opportunity for Cooper to experiment with different lineup combinations.
From a handedness perspective, it would likely irk Cooper to pair Sergachev with fellow left-handed shot Victor Hedman, but then again, would the end result still be more effective than limited, veteran RHD Dan Girardi? If RHD Anton Stralman has lost one too many steps, could Sergachev instead make for an upgrade alongside Tampa Bay’s other standout LHD, Ryan McDonagh?
Heck, would the Lightning’s already-deadly power play be even scarier if it bucked 4F/1D trends and went with Sergachev and Hedman on the top unit, instead of Sergachev on the second PP?
It’s perfectly plausible that the Lightning have already found all the correct answers in their current alignments, but what better time to experiment than now, when you have that buffer — yet you may never be in a better position to win a Stanley Cup with this core?
(After all, re-signing Brayden Point won’t be cheap, while Sergachev and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s will be slated for substantial raises after 2019-20.)
Some of these factors present challenges for the Lightning, but if Sergachev’s growth and other factors tip toward Tampa Bay, this already-formidable team could be that much more terrifying.
That thought is almost as scary as trying to stop Sergachev when he’s improvising in the offensive zone.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.