Disappointment generates reflection. And with the Lightning in the midst of a salary cap hell of their own making, the summer is a good time to contemplate Tampa Bay’s young players and their futures. Mikhail Sergachev will not turn 21 for another two months, yet he is arguably the most polarizing player on the Lightning. His weaknesses are glaring, but so are his innate abilities. With Sergachev becoming a restricted free agent at the same time as Erik Cernak, Mathieu Joseph, Anthony Cirelli, and Andre Vasilevskiy—and so much money already allocated to players on hard-to-move deals for the long-term—Sergachev’s future with the Lightning is certainly in doubt. I came up with different categories to assess where Sergachev is at this juncture.
There is a compelling case that Sergachev not only has the best shot among the Lightning defensemen, but ranks third on the team after Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Victor Hedman might have more power, but Hedman’s shot is less accurate and more susceptible to being blocked. Sergachev’s release is so quick, and he attains so much velocity on his wrist and snap shots, that he can pull and drag the puck a few inches toward the middle and whip a shot into the corner through a sea of bodies. His goal in playoff Game 2 was from above the circle, and he shot it past two bodies before it caromed off Markus Nutivaara’s skate and into the net.
During the regular season, Sergachev accrued less goals, fewer assists, and 13 less shots than in his rookie year (albeit in four less games played). But Sergachev’s catch-and-release on both his slap shot and snap shot seem more fluid than in the prior season. The frantic energy and improvisation that led to the best highlight of his rookie season against the Winnipeg Jets are being removed from his repertoire.
Even his delightful crossover move disappeared after using it at least once a game for the first three quarters of this season. This is smart. Sergachev doesn’t need to beat the opposing forward one-on-one to be effective. He is perfectly capable of exerting influence by consistently finding the shooting lanes and putting the puck on net.
For a defenseman who has played 179 career regular and postseason games, Sergachev gets lost far too often. In one of the final games of the regular season against the Canadiens, he completely surrendered the middle to Max Domi because he was trying to halt Montreal’s entry on the perimeter.
The fact that Jan Rutta was directly above him, and Anthony Cirelli was skating in support, did not dissuade him from aggressively skating toward the boards. Sergachev should be able to read the play and recognize that as soon as Rutta jumped up along the edge, his duty was to guard the middle.
This was true in the final game of the Lightning’s playoff series. With the score 2-1 and Tampa Bay fighting for survival, Sergachev allowed David Savard to complete a stretch pass to Josh Anderson that traveled from below the goal line to the edge of the far blue line. Worse yet, because Anderson had crept so far behind Sergachev, the Blue Jackets’ forward had a few steps on Sergachev that gave him the opportunity to power the puck toward the net and attempt a deke on Vasilevskiy. This was an inexcusable lapse in focus by Sergachev while the Blue Jackets were doing a reset from behind their net. Both of these errors happened when the Lightning were in defensive posture and the opponent was regrouping.
Sergachev’s struggles in gap control extend toward the rush as well. In the playoffs, when Matt Duchene had that dazzling coast-to-coast rush where he turned the Steven Stamkos line weak at the knees, Duchene caught Sergachev with an outside-inside move enabling him to have a clear path to the net on Vasilevskiy. The forwards did a poor job hindering Duchene, and Sergachev needed to protect the middle instead of worrying about the outside.
In 5v5 situations when the score was within a goal, Sergachev had the worst Corsi percentage of any Tampa Bay player against Columbus. At first this is surprising because, during the regular season, Sergachev was the best Bolts defenseman at driving possession. But context changes everything. Without Hedman and Anton Stralman in the lineup, and with the paucity of Lightning scoring, Jon Cooper was inclined to give Sergachev more ice time, and not in the sheltered minutes he received during the regular season. With the struggles of the Lightning forwards never more pronounced, Sergachev was stuck in his end boxing out, waging puck battles below the dots, and attempting first passes when his forwards weren’t getting separation. It didn’t go well.
Under pressure on retrievals and with his back facing the play, Sergachev can find his defensive partner. He has nice touch on those east-west passes beneath the goal line. But the pass that continues to plague Sergachev is the first pass to initiate the breakout. He will make the wrong read and not see a lurking defender, or his pass will miss the target. Or, if there is no separation from the forwards, like against Columbus, he will whack it up the wall too hard, allowing the puck to go easily into the opponent’s possession. Over the course of the season, we have seen Sergachev make a range of bad decisions over and over again.
Sergachev has the mobility to skate the puck out of the zone himself, but if he does this he needs to be cognizant of forecheckers (and back pressure) and avoid hurling the puck into the clutches of the enemy. Against Boston at the end of March, he tried to finesse a pass through the middle to Cedric Paquette. But Sergachev did not identify David Backes on his right side waiting to ambush the passing lane, and Backes easily rejected the pass. This denial led to Charlie Coyle depositing the puck in the back of the net seconds later.
The struggles with passing are mostly consigned to the defensive zone. In the middle of the ice and on the attack Sergachev can pass well. He can throw a dart on neutral zone regroups, sometimes springing forwards for odd-man opportunities. And in the offensive zone he uses his skating and acceleration to open up time and space for his forwards who are retreating toward higher ice or cutting toward a quiet area.
While making the proper read and completing first passes on the breakout are essential skills for being a reliable NHL defenseman, I think Sergachev can overcome his shortcomings by continuing to simplify. Instead of trying to thread a pass through the middle, or panicking and smacking the puck up the boards to the other team, he should look for his defensive partner more as a release valve or be comfortable sailing an area pass out of the zone. (Instead of driving head on into traffic in that Boston sequence, he could have found Braydon Coburn all alone on the weak side.) There is no shame in attempting the breakout from the opposite side or using indirect passing as a means to leave the zone. When Sergachev makes a hasty decision, the result is usually bad for Tampa Bay.
Boxing out, identifying coverage assignments, winning puck battles
This area of Sergachev’s game is his most glaring weakness, and the hardest one to remedy. Even though he is listed as 6’3” and 223 lbs. on ESPN, forwards who are shorter and lighter were consistently able to outmuscle him for shots in the slot on rebounds and deflections. Too often Sergachev was late to rotate, allowing weak-side forwards to pot goals on the backdoor because he was a step or two behind and failed to tie them up.
Sergachev can be guilty of shadow defending, but not challenging, a puck-carrier, and his inability to separate the opposing forward from the puck can lead to Tampa Bay getting hemmed in its own end for long stretches. Near the end of the season he tried to be more aggressive in front of the net and beneath the goal line, and instead of being repelled from the puck by its possessor he committed a penalty trying to assert his physicality. If there is one lesson to be taken away by the Lightning from this postseason, it is that they need to be able to win puck battles and play physically in a disciplined fashion. Likewise, Sergachev needs to find the right dial. A good defenseman dismantles an offensive opportunity legally.
There are few players, let alone defensemen, who can accelerate like Sergachev with the puck. His ability to pull away from the opponent with just a few strides is striking. Which is why it is hard to believe Sergachev will not live up to his potential. He is still so young, and skating is the single most important skill for a defenseman, especially in today’s NHL. His mobility with and without the puck enables him to be a playmaker from the back end.
Defensive awareness and a sharpened focus can be taught. But skill can’t be. Sergachev has too hard a shot and is too fast to give up on. Nevertheless, watching his progression in 2019-20 as he creeps toward 300 games at the NHL level will be revealing.