From the bold to the stodgy, just about every NHL coach feels skittish about trusting young players. That’s especially true when it comes to defensemen.
Sometimes it’s better to roll the dice with talent rather than going with a seemingly “safe” choice that might instead boil down to familiar failures. Down 2-0 in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper might need to bite the bullet.
He really should consider unleashing Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if the Bolts find themselves down in Game 3 (and beyond), but you could make a reasonable argument that the 19-year-old deserves more reps even when it’s 0-0 or Tampa Bay is in the lead.
No doubt, there are risks.
Most obviously, he’s just 19. Even his proponents will admit that Sergachev still has things to learn. The Capitals aren’t going to be a kind tutor.
It’s also tricky if Cooper’s especially rigid when it comes to handedness for his top two pairings. Sergachev shoots left, much like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, who join right-handed shot Anton Stralman as the Lightning’s three most prominent all-around options. (Dan Girardi rounds out that group as a righty; Braydon Coburn pairs with Sergachev as two lefties on the bottom pairing.)
Cooper hasn’t really given Sergachev a ton of “trial by fire” tests, either. During the regular season, Sergachev generated 40 points despite averaging a meager 15:22 TOI. Those minutes were arguably micromanaged, as he began a whopping 70 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
Sergachev’s possession numbers were strong, but again, it was a cushy assignment. That trend continued into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as Sergachev’s overall playoff numbers are lofty, and he’s one of the few blueliners who look good so far through the first two contests of the third round. Of course, the cushy trend continued as well; so far Sergachev’s most common forward opponents have been Jay Beagle, Devante-Smith Pelly, and Alex Chiasson.
So, basically, Sergachev’s been acing every test, yet he hasn’t exactly been taking the toughest classes. To Cooper’s eyes, elevating his role now would be a lot like forcing that student to take the SATs with zero notice.
The thing is, while there’s uncertainty with Sergachev, key Lightning defensemen in higher roles have been struggling. Victor Hedman’s numbers have been disappointing (especially since he hasn’t faced much of Alex Ovechkin or rising star Evgeny Kuznetsov), while Stralman, McDonagh, and Girardi have also struggled. Sure, there’s a chance that Sergachev would get exposed with tougher matchups and more minutes, but is it that outrageous to wonder if the Russian defenseman would serve as an upgrade over one or more of those players?
To be fair, Sergachev’s already seen jumps in ice time during certain spans, though that might come down to context (trailing frequently against Washington rather than pulling away from Boston, when he was used sparingly). The Lightning would be wise to think long and hard about really giving Sergachev a chance to sink or swim.
Sure, he’s likely to be better – possibly much better – in the future, maybe as early as next season. For all we know, this could be the Lightning’s best shot at a Stanley Cup under Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman. The Bruins, Leafs, and other division rivals could improve. Nikita Kucherov‘s bargain deal ends after 2018-19. We’ve seen how injuries can derail this team despite all of their impressive talent evaluation and smart coaching.
Maybe the Lightning are better off staying the course, but if they continue to crater at even-strength and fall in this series, there could be some regrets. “Should we have given Sergachev more of a chance?” could serve as a painful question.
And, hey, if the net result is literally even, we’d at least have better odds of seeing him break out this move again:
The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.