As Fox Sports Sun's Rick Peckham and Brian Engblom interviewed Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman in front of assembled crowd at Bolts Fan Fest on Saturday, one of the first topics of discussion was blue line prospect Mikhail Sergachev, the Bolts' prized offseason pickup acquired in a trade with Montreal for Jonathan Drouin.
Everybody, it seems, wants the scoop on Sergachev's chances of making the team.
Video: Sergachev on guidance from veteransDuring the practice session that followed, Sergachev was one of the most scrutinized players on the ice. Aside from the health of Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan and their readiness for Opening Night, the will-he-or-won't-he-make-the-team question surrounding Sergachev is the most intriguing storyline of Lightning training camp.
Sergachev gets the sense all eyes are on him.
But he's enjoying the attention.
"It's pretty cool," the former ninth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft said. "I want to show myself to the fans and obviously to the coaches and staff and GM. I'm a new guy here, but I want everybody to know I'm working hard and trying to make the team."
Making the team might be a difficult prospect for Sergachev even if he is completely ready to make the leap from junior hockey to the NHL. The Lightning already have four veteran holdovers in Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr. The Bolts signed another veteran during the offseason in 33-year-old former New York Ranger stalwart Dan Girardi. Jake Dotchin signed a two-year, one-way deal during the offseason and was a welcome surprise for Tampa Bay over the latter half of the 2016-17 season, playing in 35 games and acquitting himself well while skating as the top pair right defenseman alongside Hedman. And Slater Koekkoek, the Bolts' 2012 first round pick (10th overall), also inked a one-way deal for one year in the offseason and figures to push for playing time.
If Sergachev makes the team, he'll likely be one of eight defensemen on Tampa Bay's roster, an unusually high number to have but a number the team has said they feel comfortable carrying.
"There's no rush to make a decision," Yzerman said. "We'll let things play out."
The problem if Sergachev can't crack the Lightning lineup is he'll have to return to his junior team in Windsor, where he helped the Spitfires win the prestigious Memorial Cup as the top team in the CHL last season. Ideally, Tampa Bay would like to send Sergachev to their AHL affiliate in Syracuse to develop his pro game if he's not going to make the Lightning roster. But Sergachev is not eligible for the AHL because of an agreement between the NHL and CHL that prohibits 18- and 19-year old prospects from playing in the AHL.
Sergachev just turned 19 in June.
The Lightning can play Sergachev in nine NHL games during the regular season in what amounts to essentially a pro tryout before having to make a decision whether to keep him or send him back to juniors. Suiting up for a 10th game would trigger the first year of his entry-level contract and bind him to the Lightning for the remainder of the season.
He'll also have plenty of preseason games - the Lightning have seven this season - to make an impression in addition to training camp workouts. He already showed his unique skill set in a pair of exhibition games against prospects from the Nashville Predators at the start of rookie camp.
"I like what I saw in Nashville for sure," Yzerman said. "…He certainly has the size. He has the strength. He has the skating ability, and I believe he has the skill level to play in the NHL today. Is he ready to go? We'll find that out."
And so at practices, during scrimmages, everybody - fans, coaches, management - watches Sergachev, hoping to find an answer to the most-asked question of training camp.
Will Sergachev make the team or not?
"I don't know. Nobody knows," Sergachev said. "I haven't talked to anybody about this, like about making the team or not making the team.
"I'm just trying my best."