Tampa Bay Lightning Top 25 Under 25: #1 Mikhail Sergachev

Was there ever any doubt that Mikhail Sergachev would defend his top spot as the Lightning’s top under-25 ‘prospect’? Not really. It swept the top writers spot and was number one for 91% of readers. It’s numbers as dominant as Brayden Point when he was young. It’s also a bit weird to realize that Sergachev is still one of the youngest players on the list.

It seems like he’s been in the league forever, and in a way, he has. Sergachev has recorded 362 games at the NHL level, won two Stanley Cups and is 22nd in franchise points (#MikhailMilestones). We should know what kind of player he is, but at the same time he doesn’t seem to have reached his full potential.

The good news is that he is still young. As the roster stands, the only players younger than Sergy are Brandon Hagel and Cal Foote. That may change if Gabriel Fortier or Cole Koepke make the roster, but the general point remains – Mikhail Sergachev is still young enough to have room to grow.

After all this time with the Bolts (five seasons), what type of player do we think Sergachev really is? A big, smooth-skating defender with offensive instincts and a bit of a mean streak. We also know that every three or four games he’s going to make a stupid play that will leave everyone scratching their heads.

It seems most of his hiccups on the ice come from being too aggressive. Either he intervenes at an inopportune moment or he tries to make a pass that does not have a high level of success. That’s not necessarily a bad trait, even in a league where coaches lean toward blandness and safe play. Experience usually helps eliminate these errors, and as Sergachev got older, these errors diminished to some extent.

It will be important that he continues on a positive path because, as we all know, his responsibilities will skyrocket this season. With Ryan McDonagh now patrolling the blue line in Nashville, Sergachev is locked into a top-four role with the Lightning. He’ll be spending most of his time on the second pair, but Coach Cooper will likely turn him to the right side from time to time in games with Victor Hedman to get that little bit more offense on the ice.

Sergachev will see much tougher competition this season than in the past. Coach Cooper usually used the duo of McDonagh and Erik Cernak as his stopping duo, mainly because that was what they did well and it also freed up Victor Hedman a bit.

Hockey in Evolution

The chart above compares Sergachev (left) and McDonagh (right) 5-5 over the past three seasons. As you can see, McD excelled in suppressing the opponent’s attack without providing much offense. Sergachev was a bit of the opposite, above water on expected goals but well below water on shot splitting.

The big question of the season will be whether Sergachev can change his game enough to prevent the other team from generating chances while maintaining that unique quality that also makes him dangerous in the attacking zone. If he is paired with Cernak, which is the most likely way to start the season, he will have some help but will still have to figure things out. As Athleticism stated in their Tampa Bay Lightning preview,

“The challenge will be acclimatizing on the fly while probably coming up against some elite attackers. Few players had a tougher workload than Cernak last season, and it’s a role he will likely continue to play in the future. It’s not the workload Sergachev has had to handle so far in his NHL career, he’s been pretty light on it. Now it will be exposed.

This exposure may be what he needs to develop his game. With some players, you never really know what they are capable of until they are thrown into the deep end. The Lightning are definitely banking on the belief that they can take on the role after signing him to an eight-year extension.

So what will define a successful season for Sergachev? It depends. He’ll never be the shot suppressor that McDonagh was, but if he can improve that part of his game, even slightly, the offensive edge he brings will more than outweigh any liability he has defensively.

Personally, I would like to see him try a little less. It may seem counterproductive, but few of his mistakes come from sheer laziness. In the past, it seems like he’s tried so hard that he puts himself in bad situations. He also tends to get into a funk if he plays poorly and is one of his own harshest critics. If he could relax and trust his natural ability, things would take care of themselves. He has vastly improved much of his game since he was an intriguing 19-year-old who played 79 games for the Lightning in 2017-18.

He would also benefit from increased awareness when he has the puck in his own zone. On occasion, he gets a little lax with puck safety and has either lost control of the puck to a forecheck or seen a pass catch. With cleaner exits out of the zone, it will help transition the Lightning offense while he’s on the ice.

With an increased role on the blue line, it’s also likely that we could see an increase in that offensive production. A 45-50 point season is not impossible and would help offset some of the loss of Ondrej Palat’s departure.

As he reaches the early years of his career, the Lightning need him to reach that next level that he has so often shown glimpses of in the past. If that happens, we should see a smooth transition from the Victor Hedman era to the Mikhail Sergachev era on the Tampa Bay defense.

Robert M. Larson