Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning rookie Mikhail Sergachev getting rave reviews

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SAN JOSE, Calif. —While rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev darted in all alone on Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on Saturday, Nikita Kucherov — in the opposite circle — made sure to keep his stick on the ice.

Kucherov, 24, like many elite scorers, typically does that, making sure he’s ready to shoot. But his anticipation also had a lot to do with the confident and creative 19-year-old Russian teammate.

"When (Sergachev’s) got the puck, you always wait — something is going to happen," Kucherov said. "He’s that kind of guy."

The resulting highlight-reel assist by Sergachev displayed all the unique qualities that have made him one of the NHL rookie leaders in scoring (12 points) heading into tonight’s game in San Jose. There was Sergachev’s elite ability to recognize when to pinch into the offensive zone, sliding into the left circle. There was his vision, Sergachev saying he spotted Kucherov’s stick out of the corner of his eye at the last second. And there’s the skill, Sergachev executing a slick, fake-shot and cross-zone pass — through traffic — right on the tape of Kucherov, who finished.

"That’s like (Senators Norris Trophy winner) Erik Karlsson," wing Alex Killorn said. "(Victor Hedman) makes that pass a lot."

But Karlsson and Hedman have been in the league for at least a decade. Sergachev has played 19 NHL games. That’s what separates Sergachev too, having the swagger to make such dynamic plays so soon at this level.

"Is brazen a word?" coach Jon Cooper said. "He’s brazen enough to make that play."

"He seems completely unfazed by it," said Fox Sports Sun analyst Brian Engblom, a three-time Stanley Cup winning defenseman. "You’re thinking, ‘Are you sure he’s really just 19?’?"

• • •

Sergachev said his offensive flair was a late-developing trait. He said growing up in Russia, team’s systems aren’t designed for defensemen to be part of the scoring.

"How you get points is on the power play, shoot the puck from the point," Sergachev said. "You don’t go down (into the zone) because nobody is going to back you up."

But one year, when he was 12 or 13, Sergachev played center for a good portion of a season, about 20 games. The team didn’t have enough forwards, so it asked Sergachev to move up front. "I said, ‘Why not?’?"

It ended up being a key moment in the development for Sergachev, who had a blast. And he was successful. "I got some confidence offensively," he said. "I scored a lot of goals, had a good shot. Before I turned 14, I didn’t really think about it. It was just defense."

Sergachev said his final year in Moscow, his entire team was encouraged to contribute offensively. And that led into Sergachev’s blossoming with Windsor (Ontario Hockey League), racking up 57 points (17 goals, 40 assists) in 67 games in his first year in North America.

"Every time you watched him play, you’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’ said TSN director of scouting Craig Button, a former NHL GM. "I say all the time, good players grab your eyes. And he grabs your eyes from the first time you see him."

• • •

Sergachev said he’ll mostly keep his eye on the team’s forwards, trying to mimic some of their moves.

He’ll notice how they play (with and without the puck), how shifty they are, the way they use head fakes. As Kucherov said, Sergachev is a rare defenseman who will be daring enough dangle the puck at the blueline.

Sergachev looked like a forward on some of his goals this season. You saw it when Sergachev darted into the high slot against Pittsburgh Oct. 21, smacking his stick on the ice, calling for a pass from captain Steven Stamkos. There was Sergachev’s quick snap wrist shot from his knees on a goal against Carolina Oct. 24. On Sergachev’s second career goal, he slipped into the high slot, took a pass from Kucherov and picked his corner, ripping a wrist shot over Bobrovsky’s shoulder.

You have to think Bobrovsky was thinking about that when Sergachev approached him in Saturday’s first period, all alone in the left circle. Bobrovsky came out of the crease to challenge. Sergachev didn’t think he had a good option to shoot, or go to his backhand. "I’m not ‘Kuch,’?" he quipped.

But Sergachev saw Kucherov, making a quick fake shot/pass. "He faked just about everybody out," assistant Todd Richards said.

"He can actually see that play," Cooper said. "Not a lot of guys can."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

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