Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek had a lot of great stories to tell friends and family this offseason following a postseason run that saw the 22 year old make his playoff debut in Game 2 of a Second Round series against the New York Islanders and go on to start the Bolts' next nine playoff games, including all seven contests in the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Koekkoek developed into a key component of the Bolts' blueline in a relatively short amount of time. He started the playoffs as a black ace, a group of players brought up from AHL Syracuse once the Crunch season ends. The black aces practice with the team and come along for the postseason ride but are rarely asked to suit up in a game.
By the time the playoffs were over, though, Koekkoek was being talked about as the next best blueliner to come out of the Bolts' prospect pipeline. He was sound in his own end. He could skate. He was a weapon offensively, unafraid to join the attack and always looking to create. The enormity of the situation didn't cause him to panic or doubt himself.
Video: Koekkoek discusses his training camp approachStill, when he returned home to Winchester, Ontario over the summer, all anybody wanted to talk about was his opponent.
"Everyone came up to me asking how it was to play against (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and those guys," he said, smiling. "Everyone watches the playoffs, especially the Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7. Obviously, we hoped for a different outcome, but we were one win away from getting to the Stanley Cup Final, which is huge."
Koekkoek called the playoff experience "surreal." During the regular season he was used mainly as a fill-in for an injured player. He skated more games in the playoffs (10) than he did during the regular season (9). He set a season-high for time on ice (15:22) in Game 7 of the ECF.
"I just worked as hard as I could to stay in," he said.
Now, as training camp begins ahead of a highly-anticipated 2016-17 season for the Lightning, Koekkoek is expected to continue his rapid ascension from the playoffs and earn a spot on the Bolts roster out of camp. The Lightning blue line remains virtually unchanged from a season ago. Only Matt Carle is no longer with the team. Koekkoek is being looked at to fill his spot, which makes this camp an extremely important one for Koekkoek.
"It's everything I worked for to get here," he said. "Hopefully, I can make it and get that spot and help the team win throughout the season."
With a place on the roster within grasp, how does he avoid paralysis by analysis: overthinking a situation to the point it becomes detrimental?
"I think my parents helped me with that, just telling me to have fun," he said. "Whatever's meant to happen will happen. I think that's a big thing. Just going out and playing my game and seeing what happens."
Koekkoek was expected to get to this point but took maybe a little longer to get here than expected. The 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Koekkoek was hampered by a trio of shoulder injuries - two to his left shoulder, one to his right - in the two years that followed. But since the start of the 2014-15 season, Koekkoek has been able to stay on the ice and out of the operating room.
And his progress has accelerated since.
"He's developed a lot from what I've seen over the past couple of years from when I first saw him," fellow Bolts blueliner Jason Garrison said. "He's a good kid, and he fits really well with this team. Looking forward to having him around and for him to develop and try to help him out as much as we can because he's still got a long way to go and he's already a good player. It's going to be fun to see."
Lightning fans will certainly be watching intently, hoping Koekkoek can translate his eye-opening play from last postseason into a full season with the Bolts.