Defenseman Slater Koekkoek was soaking up some of the spotlight this week at Tampa Bay Lightning prospect camp. That says a lot, considering some of the talent in attendance and the adversity Koekkoek has encountered since being taken with the 10th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
The camp roster included forward Jonathan Drouin, the third player taken in the 2013 draft, who finished as the leading scorer during the 2014 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs. Also on hand was Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the world's top goaltending prospects, who was taken nine picks after Koekkoek in 2012.
But Koekkoek isn't worried about receiving attention. The 20-year-old has plenty to prove entering his first pro season.
"I obviously have expectations for what I want. Ultimately it's going to be up to [coaches] on what they want," Koekkoek said. "I'll live with that decision and do my best wherever I am."
Like any young player, Koekkoek would prefer to start the season in the NHL. But he is far more likely to be in the American Hockey League with the Lightning affiliate in Syracuse. Before that, he must overcome the shoulder injuries that dogged him through much of his junior career.
Koekkoek established himself as a top-tier two-way defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League, first with the Peterborough Petes then with the Windsor Spitfires after being traded in 2013. But each of his past three seasons ended prematurely with shoulder injuries. Koekkoek had surgery on his left shoulder in 2012 and 2013 and an operation on his right shoulder in March. The most recent procedure was needed after Koekkoek was injured defending a teammate in a game against the Saginaw Spirit.
"I wish that it wouldn't have happened, but would I change what I did? No," Koekkoek said. "That's the kind of player I am, the kind of teammate I am. I always do my best with what I can if a teammate needs help."
Koekkoek (6-foot-2, 184 pounds) said his right shoulder is about 80 percent healed and should be fully recovered in time for training camp in September. Until then, he's looking to add some muscle while putting his injury history behind him.
"It's a challenge. Every day I have to deal with people talking or reading things, but that's going to come along with going in the first round and being that guy," he said. "I understand it. That's all fuel to drive me to be better."
That outlook endeared him to his coaches and teammates last season in Windsor, where he served as captain and scored 15 goals and 53 points in 62 games.
"We really missed him in the playoffs. [He's] just a real kid who wants to be a player. He plays the game like he cares and he wants to be a difference-maker," said Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel, a former NHL player. "I'm not sure what the [Lightning] depth chart is, but in my opinion you sometimes have to go down and achieve at that [AHL] level before you go to the NHL. I played with guys before that went up too early and then when they went down they struggled."
Koekkoek's age and injury history aren't the only reasons he's likely to begin the season in Syracuse. Some of Tampa Bay's biggest acquisitions during a busy offseason have been on the blue line. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman signed defenseman Anton Stralman to a five-year contract Tuesday, four days after acquiring Jason Garrison in a trade from the Vancouver Canucks. Add the presence of veterans Victor Hedman, Eric Brewer, Matthew Carle, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio, and all signs point to Koekkoek starting 2014-15 with the Crunch.
"I'm definitely excited for camp. See what I can do and hopefully get a few games in Tampa. If not, then I'll do my best in Syracuse and hopefully get a call throughout the season," Koekkoek said. "I'm just excited to get started again and get my shoulders back to 100 percent and just see what I can do come the fall. If I can make it, that would be an unreal experience. If I have to start in Syracuse, then that would be an honor as well."
Koekkoek shouldn't feel too discouraged should he wind up in Syracuse. Last season, the Lightning dressed 18 players who played with the Crunch. Two of them were forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, each a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.
Koekkoek would like nothing more than to join that core of homegrown talent in Tampa Bay.
"Obviously I've had some bumps in the road, but it's still an honor to have been selected by Tampa in the first round," he said. "Hopefully I can make an impact there sooner than later and show them what I'm made of."
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