This post is part of Tampa Bay Lightning day at PHT…
The leap has been a long time coming for Slater Koekkoek.
Taken 10th overall at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft — the eighth blueliner off the board — Koekkoek was viewed as a prospect high on talent, one destined to make an impact at the next level.
Just not right away, it seemed.
A shoulder problem slowed his progression early on, and he didn’t make his big league debut until the ’14-15 campaign. He’s still yet to have registered more than nine games in a regular season.
But if last year’s playoffs were any indication, the leap is ready to happen now.
Though he started the postseason as a healthy scratch, Koekkoek eventually became part of Tampa Bay’s regular defensive rotation, finishing with one point in 10 games while averaging just over 10 minutes per night.
That’s a small sample size and yeah, the numbers are hardly overwhelming. But the Bolts seemingly solidified Koekkoek’s spot in the lineup for next season this summer, when they bought out the remainder of veteran d-man Matt Carle‘s contract.
“I’m definitely looking forward to camp and having the opportunity to put myself in a position to be with the team,” Koekkoek said earlier this month, per the Lightning website. “It’s nothing you want to take for granted, because nothing is guaranteed, so I just want to work hard in the offseason and be ready to go when camp starts.”
At first glance, Koekkoek should be in line for a spot. He projects to be in that “top seven” group with Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr, Braydon Coburn and Nikita Nesterov.
That spot isn’t set in stone, however.
Tampa Bay made some minor waves earlier this month when it announced veteran blueliner James Wisniewski would attend training camp on a PTO. Wisniewski has a few things going for him — one, he’s a right-handed shot (something the Bolts’ defense doesn’t have many of) and two, he’s a power play specialist (Tampa Bay finished 28th with the man advantage last season).
That said, it’s tough not to see Koekkoek on the roster for opening night. He’s young, a gifted skater and rose to the occasion this past spring, playing effective postseason minutes despite a relative lack of NHL experience.
“He always had that ability, but now he’s got the confidence with that,” Bolts head coach Jon Cooper said in May, per the Tampa Bay Times. “When you know you belong, it really helps you in this league, and I think with every minute he plays, he gets better and better and more confident.
“He’s done a heck of a job for us.”