Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx stepped into the elevator of his Tampa-area hotel Wednesday morning on his way to the Ice Sports Forum for the second day of Tampa Bay Lightning Development Camp.
As the elevator door opened, Groulx came face-to-face with the Lightning's most heralded prospect, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who came to Tampa for the first time Tuesday night following the trade with Montreal that brought him to the Lightning in exchange for Jonathan Drouin.
If first impressions are the most important, Sergachev's was substantial.
"He's a big guy," Groulx said with a chuckle. "… He's big and he's thick and you can tell he's going to be an outstanding player, no doubt about it."
After his Crunch won the Eastern Conference Championship by beating the Providence Bruins in five games to advance to the Calder Cup Finals, Groulx had an opportunity to catch the Memorial Cup final between Sergachev's Windsor Spitfires and the Erie Otters on TV. Sergachev earned an assist on the game's opening goal, helping lead his team to a 4-3 victory and the title as the best junior team in North America.
Video: Benoit Groulx on Development Camp
He was selected to the post-tournament All-Star team after posting four points (goal, 3 assists) and a plus-3 differential in four games.
"I thought he was a monster there," Groulx said of Sergachev's play in the final game. "I spent many years in junior and I know when guys are the best players on the ice. You can tell that he was playing every second shift and the other team was obviously a great team too, but he was there and when he was on the ice, he was the best player out there."
Sergachev doesn't just impress on the ice, however. Facing the video cameras, recorders and notepads of the Tampa media for the first time on Wednesday, Sergachev looked as comfortable behind a microphone as he does gliding over the ice. He was engaging, charming. He told jokes, funny jokes that drew genuine laughter. And he did it all with a smile. The interview lasted a little longer than 10 minutes. Sergachev, it seemed, could have continued talking for 10 more and been perfectly happy.
All of which masks the fact he came to North America as a 17-year old knowing barely English at all.
"It took me about three to four months," he recalled.
Video: Dev Camp: Mini 3v3 drill highlights
How could a teenager, thousands of miles away from his home in a foreign land, unfamiliar to his new team and teammates and unable to speak the native language so quickly adapt? After all, he would go on to win the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the Ontario Hockey League's Most Outstanding Defenseman of the Year, becoming the youngest rookie ever to win the honor.
"A lot of people helped me," he said. "I just want to learn. People think I'm a self-taught guy, but, no, a lot of people helped me. I had a great English teacher…I watched some videos on YouTube to help myself. I'm just trying to learn."
And learn is what he'll do during his four-day stint at development camp. On Wednesday, Sergachev made his first appearance in a Lightning uniform, introducing himself to his new coaches, teammates and fans. They got a glimpse at the smooth skating defenseman who looks effortless as he maneuvers over the ice. They saw the blistering shot that has scouts touting his two-way game.
And Sergachev got a look at the organization he'll call home.
"Today's impression was just outstanding," Sergachev said about the Lightning. "On the ice, during the practice, they fixed different things I never noticed. From that, I can say it's just outstanding. They take care of you. They want to help you. They want you to make the team. They want you to be successful."
Sergachev was unsure about joining the Lightning when the trade first went down. He had never been traded before, and he was a fan of the Canadiens.
Video: Sergachev arrives at Development Camp
"I was kind of frustrated because I was just drafted by them," Sergachev said. "They gave me a huge chance when I was 18-years old. Everything was going normal…When I got traded, I was kind of frustrated for 5-10 minutes, but then it's amazing. This team wants me more than Montreal to play and succeed in the NHL and try to help them. That's why I love this team."
By all accounts, Sergachev will be given every opportunity to make the Lightning out of training camp this season. The former first round draft pick (9th overall selection) in the 2016 NHL Draft got a taste of life in the league last season with Montreal, playing four games, including the final game of the season against Detroit. He got over 17 minutes of ice time against the Red Wings (his previous high was 11:48 in the season opener) and gained confidence he could smoothly make the transition to the NHL.
He also learned what it will take to stick in the league permanently.
"Just got to play my game," he said. "Just got to be faster at the NHL level and think faster and I've got to do everything faster."
If past experience is any indication, the transition will be a smooth one for Sergachev.