If the first nine games of the season were a tryout for Mikhail Sergachev and his chances to stay with the Tampa Bay Lightning for an extended period, the 19-year-old Russian defenseman knocked it out of the park.
Sergachev made what could have been a fairly difficult decision for the Lightning a rather simple one with his play to start the year. After growing into the NHL game over his first handful of games, Sergachev has exploded offensively of late, recording three-consecutive multi-point games. He notched the first two goals of his NHL career against Columbus on October 19, providing the Lightning with all of their offense in a 2-0 shutout victory, and followed up with his third goal of the season in Saturday's 7-1 blowout of Pittsburgh.
Video: TBL@CBJ: Sergachev rifles home first NHL goal
The Lightning had nine games to evaluate Sergachev and decide if they wanted to keep him with the team, thus starting his entry-level contract, or send him back to this junior team in Windsor.
Following Tuesday's morning skate in Raleigh, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said Sergachev will remain with the Lightning for the foreseeable future.
"This has been an evaluation process since training camp, so it's a month-and-a-half in," Cooper said. "You're looking for, has there been improvement? Is he adapting to the game, the speed of the game, the physicality? And he's done all that and more. And so when you watch a player like that continue to improve, especially at a young age and looking at the ceiling he has, which is really high right now, it's pretty hard to make a change. He's had a positive impact on our team. And he's part of our team. So, that's how it's going to be moving forward."
Sergachev has emerged as one of the Lightning's leading offensive threats on the blue line. He leads all Tampa Bay defensemen for points (3-5-8) and ranks tied for fifth on the team overall. Among NHL defensemen, he's tied for fifth for scoring, ahead of established league blueliners like P.K Subban, Kevin Shattenkirk, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.
Among rookie defensemen, Sergachev is tops in goals and second in scoring behind only New Jersey's Will Butcher while averaging three minutes less ice time than Butcher.
Despite an impressive start to his Lightning career, Sergachev knows there's still more work to do to become a regular in the league.
"Points don't matter for me," he said. "I'm trying to learn every day, like D zone, and I feel like in the D zone I'm making steps forward every game. But sometimes teams are too good, and it's hard. I feel like I'm getting better in the D zone."
Sergachev will play his 10th game with the Lightning when they face the Carolina Hurricanes at Raleigh's PNC Arena on Tuesday. But even though his entry-level contract will kick in once he suits up for the game against the Canes, Sergachev knows there are no guarantees he'll be with the Lightning for the duration.
"I'm so happy to be here, but it doesn't mean I'm going to stay for the whole year," he said. "…I'm just thinking about the next game. Every time it's a new day for me. It's how I can improve every day. I've got to learn every day."
Video: PIT@TBL: Stamkos earns 600th point on Sergachev's PPG
Sergachev said partnering with Anton Stralman through the first nine games this season has been helpful allowing him to get comfortable in the NHL. In the past, Cooper has said Stralman might not win the Norris Trophy, but his partner will have a good chance to.
In the past three seasons, Victor Hedman has benefitted from that partnership with Stralman and emerged as a yearly Norris candidate as a result.
Now Sergachev is reaping the benefits of Stralman's tutelage.
"He just helps me so much, especially in the breakouts because he's talking a lot on the ice," Sergachev said. "It's so easy to communicate with him. When he needs to make a simple play, he makes it. When he can make a play, he makes it. So, it's the right time and the right decision all the time. It's just great to have a partner like that."
And in Sergachev, it looks like Stralman has another young defensemen to potentially groom into a Norris candidate.