A week for one key de­ci­sion

Tampa Bay Times - - Sports - Joe Smith can be reached at joe­smith@tam­pabay.com. Fol­low @TBTimes_JSmith.

SUN­RISE — An­ton Stral­man is the most calm­ing and steady­ing pres­ence the Light­ning has on its blue line.

That’s what makes the vet­eran de­fense­man’s praise for his 19-yearold part­ner so strik­ing.

“I think poise would be a word that kind of sums him up,” Stral­man said.

Mikhail Ser­gachev en­tered the Light­ning’s train­ing camp with plenty of pres­sure. He has prove to he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL, or else he’ll be sent back to ju­niors. And he’s do­ing in it an im­mense spot­light, which comes with be­ing part of June’s Jonathan Drouin block­buster trade to Mon­treal.

From ev­ery­thing Ser­gachev has shown — and how he has done so — it feels like not only will he be on the Light­ning’s ros­ter for next week’s reg­u­lar-sea­son opener, he’ll be an im­pact­ful rookie this sea­son.

“He kind of does it all,” vet­eran de­fense­man Dan Gi­rardi said. “He’s been play­ing with con­fi­dence. That’s what he has to do. He has to play like he be­longs, not just come in and test the wa­ter.”

Ser­gachev, a smooth-skat­ing 6-foot-3 Rus­sian, has got­ten bet­ter with each of the five pre­sea­son games he has played head­ing into tonight’s fi­nale in Nashville. He has logged at least 20 min­utes in four and been a key cog on both spe­cial-teams units. The Light­ning wanted to give Ser­gachev a hard look, and that eval­u­a­tion is ex­pected to con­tinue when the reg­u­lar sea­son starts Fri­day against the Pan­thers.

Tampa Bay has un­til Ser­gachev’s 10th NHL game to re­turn him to his ju­nior team, Wind­sor in the On­tario League, be­fore his en­try-level con­tract kicks in

(which would be­gin his NHL ser­vice and get him to free agency quicker). He can’t play in the AHL be­cause he’s too young.

“It could be nine games, 10 games, 40 games, there’s no rush,” gen­eral man­ager Steve Yz­er­man said. “We haven’t de­cided our lineup for open­ing night. We’ll de­cide that in a week.”

As­so­ciate coach Rick Bow­ness, who has been be­hind the bench for 2,000 games, said Ser­gachev has “NHL writ­ten all over him” with his size, skat­ing and skill level. The Light­ning’s eval­u­a­tion has been pri­mar­ily about how he has han­dled the game’s in­ten­sity and quick de­ci­sion-mak­ing at this level.

Ser­gachev some­times has tried to do too much with the puck, and the game has got­ten faster on him a few times. But he said that play­ing so many min­utes has al­lowed him to gain con­fi­dence. Thurs­day’s 5-2 loss to the Pan­thers might have been Ser­gachev’s most com­plete game, Al­lS­tar de­fense­man Vic­tor Hed­man said.

Ser­gachev en­tered camp believing he was ready for the NHL, and the pre­sea­son has re­in­forced his be­lief. But he made Mon­treal’s open­ing-night ros­ter last sea­son, played in three games and was sent to Wind­sor.

“Last year I did pre­sea­son, but it was a dif­fer­ent story,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got­ten bet­ter since last year, so I feel like I’m more ready.”

Ser­gachev’s in­stincts are strong, al­low­ing him to make the kind of plays that can’t be taught, said Light­ning TV analyst Brian Eng­blom, a Stan­ley Cup-win­ning de­fense­man. He’s ver­sa­tile, able to play the left or right side. His work ethic and ma­tu­rity have im­pressed team­mates.

“He gets it,” Bow­ness said.

Whether Ser­gachev gets a spot on the ros­ter will be de­cided in the next week.

“He’s shown why we made that trade for him,” Bow­ness said. “Ev­ery­thing we heard about him was le­git­i­mate.”

NUTS AND BOLTS: De­spite a very im­pres­sive camp, 2017 sec­ond-round draft pick F Alex Volkov was as­signed to AHL Syra­cuse on Fri­day. The Light­ning’s ros­ter is down to 25 healthy play­ers (if you in­clude F Michael Bour­ni­val, who is be­ing eval­u­ated). … The lines were switched in prac­tice. Tyler John­son was with Ryan Cal­la­han and Alex Kil­lorn, and Bray­den Point was back at cen­ter on the third line with Yanni Gourde and On­drej Palat.

Light­ning

JOE SMITH

DIRK SHADD | Times

De­fense­man Mikhail Ser­gachev keeps im­press­ing Light­ning vet­er­ans.

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