Sunday, 22 October 2017

Slater Koekkoek is Knocking on Opportunity's Door

The Tampa Bay Lightning are reaping the rewards of giving consistent opportunity to a young defenseman who was taken inside the top-10 at the NHL draft.  Mikhail Sergachev has been a huge breath of fresh air for a Bolts defense that was built upon a foundation of more questions than answers heading into the 2017-18 campaign.  What the team has learned with Sergachev is that, if you give a talented young player the chance and are willing to forgive the occasional mistake, the rewards can be plentiful.  The prudent move now is to apply that experience to the treatment of Slater Koekkoek.

That TLL is pro-Koekkoek will come as no surprise to long-time readers, as evidenced here and here.  The fact of the matter is that a competent NHL team shouldn't take a player 10th overall at the draft and have him sit in no-man's-land during the prime of his career.  It's true that Koekkoek doesn't have an overtly strong resume behind him, but it's also true that to have experience on a resume you need playing time.  It's the age old tale of needing a job to get experience but needing experience to get the job.  Faulting Koekkoek for not having a resume to this point is not particularly fair.  The better thing to do is question whether or not Koekkoek has done anything that should dissuade the coaching staff from giving him that first taste of a REAL opportunity.

The last sentence in the previous paragraph is key.  This early in the season, there simply isn't enough data from which legitimate, tested conclusions can be drawn.  The sample size is far too small.  Instead, the focus needs to be on whether or not Koekkoek has shown any demonstrable red flags during his limited taste this year that should disqualify him from receiving an opportunity to actually generate a large chunk of workable data.

Consider the following chart, which compares all defensemen who have suited up for the Lightning in at least one game so far this year:

As you can see, in limited minutes, Koekkoek has done a relatively superb job of controlling the shot attempt share when he has been on the ice.  None of this is to say that he's a better player than Victor Hedman, but rather it is to say that he deserves a bigger chance to showcase his skills based on the positive results he's shown in limited minutes thus far.  From a pure possession perspective, it is difficult to see why guys like Sustr and Girardi have played in place of Koekkoek.

The next thought that crossed my mind was this: Perhaps the strong possession has been masked because Koekkoek has been on the ice for a ludicrous share of goals against, which has blinded the coaching staff into thinking that he's some gross defensive liability.  Here's a chart for comparison:

Again, Koekkoek has proven to be a relatively reliable option when it comes to being on the ice for goals scored for the Lightning vs. goals scored against.  Andrej Sustr doesn't appear on that chart because he is legitimately riding a 0% (!) goals-for rating in limited action this year.  Small sample sizes can generate funky results like that, but it's impossible to look at the previous two charts and conclude that Koekkoek has been some major liability who doesn't deserve an expanded role.

Even looking at expected goals-for, which takes into account the fluctuations in shooting and save percentage that can skew smaller sample sizes, Koekkoek has been a shining star in his limited TOI:

Again, it's clear that there is no legitimate rationale to play Koekkoek in the range of seven minutes per night.  He's been better than that, and he deserves a chance to show that he can be better than that on an ongoing basis.  

The Lightning didn't select Koekkoek 10th overall in 2012 because the envisioned that he would become their 7th or 8th defenseman; it's time to see if he can be the player they drafted.  It was promising to see that he played 11 minutes in Saturday's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that trend of increased ice time will need to be continued for it to be considered a fair chance in this blogger's eyes.

The bottom line: Slater Koekkoek deserves more minutes and opportunity than he's been getting.  He's knocking on opportunity's door, but the Lightning aren't answering.  This horse has been dead for a couple years now, but for whatever reason the wolves have avoided the corpse.  That's what has allowed me to keep beating it.  I'll keep doing so until Koekkoek is seeing more ice, whether that be in Tampa or elsewhere.

As always, thanks for reading.

(All statistics cited in this blog are courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, a premier source for hockey analytics.)

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