ELLENTON, Fla. - Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek is beginning to get used to the Florida lifestyle. If things go well, he'll be playing in the Sunshine State for years to come.
Koekkoek, 22, from North Dundas, Ontario, played in nine games for the Lightning last season, and spent the entire Eastern Conference First Round against the Detroit Red Wings as a member of the team's "black aces."
However, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Islanders, Koekkoek was in the lineup and played in 10 of the team's final 11 Stanley Cup playoff games, eventually pushing veteran Matt Carle to the bench and increasing his ice time with each appearance.
In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Koekkoek had a season-high 15:22 of ice time. The Lightning lost 2-1 to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, but Koekkoek gained confidence going through the experience and is preparing for his first full season in the NHL.
"I was just so excited to be out there on the ice for the playoffs, it was a dream come true," Koekkoek said. "And it's something I have worked hard for. It was tough to finish the way we did because we got so close and it was pretty hard to watch the [Stanley Cup] Final, because we almost made it. But I just wanted to have fun with it and play hard when I got the chance."
Koekkoek, the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, is in line for a significant role with the Lightning defense this season. Tampa Bay bought out the remaining two years of Carle's contract, which made him a free agent, and he signed a one-year contract with the Nashville Predators. That opened up a spot Koekkoek is looking to secure.
With fellow defensemen Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov playing in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, Koekkoek will be one of Tampa Bay's top defensemen during training camp and much of the preseason.
"I'm definitely looking forward to camp and having the opportunity to put myself in a position to be with the team," Koekkoek said. "It's nothing you want to take for granted, because nothing is guaranteed, so I just want to work hard in the offseason and be ready to go when camp starts."
It has been a busy offseason for the Lightning, who signed captain Steven Stamkos to an eight-year, $68 million contract and Hedman to an eight-year, $63 million contract extension.
Koekkoek was excited that Stamkos would remain with Tampa Bay.
"He's such a great leader and a great character guy," Koekkoek said. "He sets a great example for the players around him with his work ethic and the way he fought to get back on the ice [after surgery April 4 to remove a blood clot] during the playoffs. He's just a great teammate."
Koekkoek said Hedman has helped him with his game and he has become more comfortable playing in the NHL.
"[Hedman] is a great guy and he knows how to be a professional on and off the ice," Koekkoek said. "He's got great talent and he's a big, athletic guy that is one of the best skaters I've seen. But the way he conducts himself off the ice is also a big part of what makes him a great guy to be around."
Tampa Bay also signed center Alex Killorn to a seven-year contract and center Vladislav Namestnikov to a two-year contract to avoid arbitration. The Lightning also are trying to sign restricted free agent right wing Nikita Kucherov to a contract before the season begins.
Koekkoek said the offseason moves shows the team's commitment to winning and being successful over the long term.
"It's great to see, because these guys were drafted here and have been part of the organization for several years," Koekkoek said. "So it's nice to be a place where they want to develop their players and take care of them."
Koekkoek recently took part in a Lightning-sponsored youth camp along with former Tampa Bay players Dave Andreychuk and Jassen Cullimore. Koekkoek also planned to take part in a youth camp in Orlando, and then continue his transition into a Florida lifestyle by taking his girlfriend to Walt Disney World.
"I'm pretty excited about that," Koekkoek said. "It's her first time visiting here."