The good new for the Lightning is that they don't have a history of scratching supremely talented young players who have proven that they are ready to contribute at hockey's highest level. They don't have a history of driving those players to the brink, resulting in a showdown between player and management. They don't have a history of needing a magic breakfast meeting to smooth things over, either.
While still incredibly early, this is eerily reminiscent of the situation Jonathan Drouin found himself in last year. It looks like the Drouin situation ultimately worked out for both sides, though there is still no excuse for the coaching staff's misuse of him early last year, but if the team keeps playing with fire it's eventually going to get burned. No, I'm not suggesting that Koekkoek is on the verge of asking for a trade. No, I'm not suggesting that the coaching staff is going to run him out of town. Rather, I'm simply arguing that continually handling young players in a less-than-ideal way will hurt the team in the long-term in one way or another:
If you wait until your young players prove they are good you will have wasted ~half of their best years.— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) October 24, 2015
The reality of the situation is that Slater Koekkoek is already a really, really good NHL defenseman. He doesn't need to "prove" that he deserves a chance to anyone. He's already done that. This is a guy who skates like the wind and has the ability to contribute on many teams in the league right now. Consider his performance from last season as evidence:
And, for people who like fancy bar graphs:To put this in perspective: Among TB D w/ >50 5v5 min last year, Koekkoek 2nd in CF%, 1st in xGF%, 3rd in CA/60, 1st in SCF%. #TBLightning— Michael Stuart (@MikeStuartTLL) October 15, 2016
Simply, there's a legitimate argument to be made that he might be the third-best defenseman on the roster right now. Scratching him in favor of anyone other than Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman is a decision that makes the team worse on the ice. Unless there's some health reason behind the decision, all of the evidence we have suggests that it's inexcusable.
In summary, coaches have an obligation to ice the lineup that gives their teams the best chance to win; for Tampa Bay, there is little doubt that said lineup should include Slater Koekkoek. The point here isn't to suggest that Koekkoek is perfect or that he has nothing left to prove. Instead, it's to highlight that he's done more than enough to warrant a legitimate shot at top-four NHL minutes with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As always, thanks for reading.
(All statistics cited are courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, a premier source for hockey analytics.)