Tampa Bay's blue line lost a lot of experience this offseason with the departures of veterans Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi.
Neither of the unrestricted free agents was offered a contract by the Lightning. Stralman ended up signing a three-year deal with the cross-state rival Florida Panthers. Girardi has yet to find a new home.
The additions of Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn during the summer helped offset their exits.
But it's the continued maturity of young defensemen like Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak that will largely determine just how good the Lightning blueline can be this season.
To that end, their inclusion at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships - Sergachev for Team Russia, Cenak for host country Slovakia - should help accelerate their development and give them even more confidence as they enter Lightning training camp as established starters in the National Hockey League.
Video: Shattenkirk on joining the Bolts
"It was awesome," Sergachev said of the experience. "I was thrilled playing with all the best players from Russia except for a couple missing guys. It was pretty much an Olympic team. I enjoyed it, not just the game but the atmosphere in the room and the hotel. All of us enjoyed it. It was a fun time."
Sergachev led all Russian defensemen for scoring at the tournament with a goal and six assists in 10 games and ranked tied for third among all tourney blueliners. His plus-11 rating was tied for third highest in the tourney, and he was trusted with quarterbacking a deadly Russian power play that featured NHL superstars like Nikita Kucherov and Evgeni Malkin and connected on 29.6 percent of its opportunities.
"I mean, Malkin is playing in front of the net, says a lot," Sergachev said, grinning. "It was great playing with Kuch. Most of the time I was passing it to him. Gusev was on the left side, Malkin, Dadonov, all great players…I felt like a lot of our D could have played that first power play, but (the coaching staff) felt like I was the one who could quarterback it. It felt good that they trusted a young guy like me and put me on the first power play with all those superstars. I enjoyed it."
One of the big questions looming over Lightning training camp centers around who will partner with Victor Hedman in the Bolts' top pair with last year's partner Girardi gone. If the first day of on-ice action is any indication, Sergachev could be given that opportunity. The two skated together with Team Esposito during drills and were the starting pair during an intra-squad scrimmage with Team Peckham.
"Sergy's taken positive steps each year," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "People have got to remember how young he was when he first came into the league. He's still a young kid now [21 years old]. For his development and how far he's come so far, it's been awesome to see. And now it's time to start taking some more steps. Every year, his minutes have gotten more, his responsibilities have gotten some more, and he's found out he can play both the right and left side. Are there going to be opportunities here for him? No question. It's hard to sit here and say where we're going to pencil everybody in in these exact spots, but there will be ample time for Sergyy to get reps with Hedman, and we've just got to go from there."
Cernak, meanwhile, also excelled in his first World Championships experience playing for the host team Slovakia. He continued to improve as an offensive threat, scoring three goals and adding a pair of assists in seven tournament games. And he saw action in a number of different situations, getting time on both the power play and penalty kill.
"I think after last season, I had, I don't know, 60 (NHL) games under my belt," Cernak said. "So now I have more experience playing against really good players. There were so many guys from the NHL, and I played a lot of minutes there. It was a big deal for me, and I think I take something from that. Now I am more confident, and I know what I have to do here."
Video: Training Camp | Jon Cooper
Cernak seamlessly partnered with Ryan McDonagh once he was called up from Syracuse in November last season, that duo forming the Lightning's shut down pair as the season progressed. That the Lightning coaching staff trusted him in that role so early in his career says a lot about the player he is now and the player he can become.
"He's such a powerful guy, it doesn't take him more than one or two strides to get going at top speed, especially going backwards," McDonagh said. "His backward skating is phenomenal, and he can stay right on top of those forwards, especially nowadays they're so fast, the competition. When you can play right on top of guys, it's frustrating for them and helps everybody else out on the ice."
Now, having seen their ice time and their responsibilities grow last season combined with the confidence they gained from a successful international competition, expectations have grown exponentially for Sergachev and Cernak this season.
"I can say from personal experience myself when I went (to the World Championships) with Team Canada in 2017, it helped me," Cooper said. "And it's just going over there and playing with different players, playing with elite players, and being put in those situations where you're playing big games. Again, it just goes back to experience and being a part of those and actually having confidence to play in those situations. I don't know how much Sergachev has gotten to play with the Ovechkins and Kuznetsovs and all these guys that are older than he is, but he's probably not been able to run into. And now you're put in these situations and he's playing with these guys. Nothing but a benefit to me."