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Mikhail Sergachev’s development is a lesson in the value of patience

The Montreal Canadiens have now started to follow Tampa Bay’s lead.

NHL: JAN 02 Lightning at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three years ago, Mikhail Sergachev moved to the Tampa Bay Lightning, closing a chapter of Montreal’s draft and development history. At the time of the trade, Sergachev had played just one season of Junior hockey with the Windsor Spitfires and a total of four NHL games under the banner of the Montreal Canadiens.

The departure of such high-profile prospects always create parallel scenarios and, what if the move never happened questions that are impossible to answer truly.

But there are still lessons to learn from the development of traded youngsters, especially when they flourish in their new environment. In the case of Sergachev, it’s the value of patience.

It took a bit more than three seasons for Sergachev to establish himself as a clear top-four caliber defenceman, and he arguably only confirmed that status late this season. Replacing an injured Ryan McDonagh on the second pair, the ex-Hab saw his minutes increase, filled a more shutdown role and backstopped the second penalty kill consistently.

Sergachev isn’t yet a finished product — his game still has its weaker parts — but he more than stepped up in McDonagh’s absence, leaving little doubt he could consistently play up the lineup of a successful Lightning team. And not as a passenger, as one of its driver.

As I mentioned, it didn’t happen overnight. His game had to evolve significantly over time to rise to the demands of the position.

Offence was never really the question for Sergachev. He had it. The defenceman’s canon from the blue line, repeated slot incursions, and ability to dangle through the defence to take on the goalie, lead him to finish third in points from the back end in his draft year.

It’s the prospect’s defensive game that lagged behind. After being selected ninth overall by the Canadiens in the 2016 draft, he was sent back to Junior to improve on that aspect of his play. Some of his downfalls included: a lack of awareness, not picking assignments in time or making the wrong decisions in coverage, and at times, mental lapses that lead to costly turnovers.

Here are a few sequences from his time with the Spitfires illustrating the above problems.

Sergachev wears #31.

Sergachev, balancing improving his defensive game with his wilder offensive nature, didn’t have a dominant draft-plus-one season. His point-per-game rate improved slightly, but not enough to counterbalance the lone goal he managed at the 2017 World Junior Under-20 tournament.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story. The defenceman’s usage at the tournament was questionable, but when they don’t increase year to year, they contribute to the impression of a stagnating play.

His only appearance with the Canadiens at the end of the 2016-17 season corroborated this feeling to an extent. That night, Sergachev repeated some of the same mistakes that weakened his Junior game.

Sergachev wears #22.

The play above started in an unfortunate way. Andreas Martinsen tried to clear the defensive zone, but suffered a weird bounce from the boards. The puck flew back in the hands of a Detroit forward who moved it to the right circle.

Sergachev couldn’t be blamed for the turnover. That being said, his lack of urgency directly contributed to the goal against. He watched as the puck circled back down in possession of the opposing team, upright, stick at his hips and looking more like a spectator than an active defender.

As an opposing forward threatened a net-drive, he made the right first move — peaking behind him to identify a passing threat — but, as the attacker then moved to challenge his goalie, Sergachev found himself too far from the play to protect access to the slot. His distant positioning might not have mattered if he was able to correct it, but he wasn’t in an athletic, explosive stance. The lack of tension thorough his body delayed his counter move, allowing the Detroit forward to get inside and score.

It was an excusable rookie mistake. This game was only the fourth of Sergachev’s career, and his first since October. Unfortunately, it still added a final dissonant note to his season.

We don’t know exactly what happened in Montreal’s decision room in the following months, but Sergachev’s draft-plus-one season probably factored at least in a small part in the decision to use him as the chip in the trade for the young, top-six forward, Jonathan Drouin.

And so, Sergachev moved on to Tampa.

The next year, the coaching staff of Tampa Bay slotted him on the second pairing. Sergachev started scoring with a vengeance in the first few months, putting up 22 points in the first 32 games, en route to a total of 40 over the season. But, the defenceman was only top-four on the lineup sheet. He was limited to around 15 minutes per game, and his 73% offensive zone start was indicative of his role as an offensive specialist. To offset some of the prospect’s weaknesses, Anton Stralman, a shutdown defender, also became Sergachev’s most frequent partner.

The Lightning had laid out a development plan for the defenceman.

They were not going to give him assignments he could not handle. They played the young defenceman to his strengths. And late in the season, the acquisition of McDonagh facilitated the prospect’s sheltering, pushing him down to the third pairing.

Sergachev learned his trade. And slowly, the offensive zone starts ratio decreased and his defensive impact improved.

From Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz

The HockeyViz graphs illustrate Sergachev’s progression quite well.

In his first stint with the Habs in 2016-17, the prospect bled scoring chances from the slot, as demonstrated by the bright red areas around the net on the lower defensive map and the high rate of shot against. Every year, the defencemen suppressed those chances better and better, until the red markings paled and receded to the periphery. He became a less risky bet for the coaching staff who increased his minutes.

From Micah Blake McCurdy’s Hockeyviz

How did Sergachev become a better shot-suppressor?

By adding strength, yes, but more so by developing his motor. Now, the defenceman is more engaged; he sticks with attackers with a fleet of footwork and leverages his size better in tight quarters to prevent attackers from cleanly escaping with the puck. The defenceman also recognizes assignments faster, and consistently repositions his stick to mirror the opponents’ as he checks in zone.

But there are still steps the defenceman needs to take in order to become a true proactive, shutdown defender: completely eliminating, with more shoulder checks, the fog-of-war that sometimes forms behind him — attackers can still sneak by him unnoticed; winning more of his races for inside positioning around the net to box out threats; and mastering the art of angling opponents to the boards, something he still only approximates.

Here’s a few sequences that illustrate the defensive strengths of Sergachev and some of the elements he still has to work on.

Changes to the defensive side of the game can only partly explain the evolution of Sergachev.

We sometimes forget that the best defence is offence. The defenceman is controlling the game more and more from the offensive blue line. He has grown even more effective in his ability to retain possession against the pressure of high-defensive wingers and find his teammates with passes.

He also pinches more appropriately to keep the puck in the offensive zone and anticipates turnovers to aggressively break counter attacks. And in his zone, he creates more clean breakouts by sealing the puck from opponents on recoveries and then giving immediate passing options to his defensive partner.

In other words, the defencemen’s better shot-suppression comes from both working on his weaknesses and improving his strengths.

The Tampa Bay Lightning is a fortunate organization. Their talent allows them to shelter their prospects at the bottom of the lineup, placing them in position to succeed and play to their advantages until their game improves enough to fill the demands of higher roles. Sergachev didn’t spend any time in the AHL, but played much of his career against the lower-half of NHL formations. Now, as a soon-to-be 22-year-old, he seems on track for a consistent top-four role on the Lightning — or elsewhere in the ever-shifting NHL.

Still, such a strategy is not the luxury of elite teams. If an organization feels the need to rush a prospect they are not in a position to compete anyway, which still makes patience and the use of farm teams, the best developmental approach.

The good news is that, after changing their organizational direction, it’s a path the Montreal Canadiens now seem to take more and more with their prospects. They look to provide challenges for them without overwhelming their abilities. Recent examples of this being recommending another year in college for Cole Caufield and sending some of their top youngsters back to the AHL when they hit developmental walls.

The next step for them is tailoring their development plan to fit the uniqueness of each player and seeing their evolution through, maximizing the effectiveness of the Mikhail Sergachevs of this world — talented prospects that don’t necessarily fit the typical north-south, industrious player mould of the Habs organization, but could represent great complements to the formation once they come into their own.

One player who comes to mind that is presently in the organization is Josh Brook. Brook isn’t a hardened defenceman, à la Cale Fleury, or a speedy, defensively-inclined Victor Mete, and he shouldn’t be treated to the same development formula. Through his offensive and transition abilities, Brook could control the game in a lesser, but similar way to Sergachev and still become a blue-liner with a positive scoring-chance differential in the coming years.