Two teams have stolen the limelight from all others in the
NHL this season. The first is the Western Conference-dominating Vegas Golden
Knights. In their inaugural season, the team based in Las Vegas is primed for
the postseason already. The other team rules all just after the halfway point,
showing no signs of slowing down.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been next to immaculate in all
facets of the game. They’re scoring a vast amount of goals and keeping goals
out of their net, leading to a very healthy +49 goal differential after 44
games. Somewhat despite their surge to the top of the overall standings, the
Bolts have also done very well to integrate rookies into their team, giving
them strong appeal in the seasons to come as well.
Rise of the rookies
For a start, the Tampa Bay Lightning team is a rather young
unit, with an average age of 27.13 and three 33-year-olds and up weighing that
average down, the Bolts look set for long-term success if this season is
anything to go by.
Two Tampa Bay rookies have really made their mark in this
campaign. Yanni Gourde is operating as a worthy bottom-six center, contributing
14 goals and 30 points through 44 games. But at 26-years-old, the Quebec-native
has had plenty of practice in the minors. The real wonder story has been that
of Russian defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who was only given a
four-game shot with the Montreal Canadiens last season – spending much of
the season in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires.
Over the summer, Tampa Bay traded long-standing want-away Jonathan
Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev from the Habs, ushering a new age on the Bolts
blueline. Named on to the NHL lines in every game of the season to the 44-game
mark, Sergachev has shown his skill, poise, and maturity to bolster an already
very strong Lightning roster.
Here comes the boom
Mikhail Sergachev has been a key piece of the defense for
Tampa Bay, leading to them being the third best regarding fewest goals conceded
after 44 games, with just 112 so far. Last season, they stood with the 15th-most
against and missed out on the playoffs; now they stand above all else. Some of
this will be down to certainty in net with Andrei Vasilevskiy instead of a
tandem, but this solid defense is one of the many reasons why punters have
taken William Hill’s odds of
+600 for the Bolts to win the Stanley Cup this season.
On a blueline that already boasts top talents and strong
veterans in Slater Koekkoek, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Victor Hedman,
Sergachev still manages to stand out with his youthful speed and confidence on
the puck. Only 19-years-old, Sergachev stands 6’3’’ and 223 lbs, making the
Russian who wowed in Windsor a mighty competitor. With eight goals – a massive
five of which have been game-winners – 26 points, and a +13 rating, it’s clear
that the young Russian has been a major player in Tampa Bay’s success.
Despite his apparent struggles at the top level last
season, Windsor Spitfires general manager Warren Rychel knew that he wouldn’t be
able to keep Sergachev for this season, but didn’t expect such a massive impact
from him so quickly. Rychel
now believes that “the sky is the limit” for the blueliner formerly taken
ninth overall in 2016.
It’s clear that Mikhail Sergachev is a very talented
individual, and through some shrewd trading, the Lightning have themselves
another all-star defenseman in the making. The teenage Nizhnekamsk-native will
continue to utilize his swift feet, keen eye, and high hockey IQ to bolster the
Bolts from the back as they soar towards what now looks like an almost
inevitable Stanley Cup.
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