Koekkoek on the Move

The Lightning traded former No. 10 overall pick Slater Koekkoek and a 2019 fifth round pick to Chicago Friday for defenseman Jan Rutta and a 2019 seventh rounder.

Rutta, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-handed defenseman, has two goals and four assists in 23 games with Chicago this season. He recently passed through waivers to go to AHL Rockford, where he has has a goal and three assists in eight games.

AHL eligibility (without waivers) is the key to the trade as the Lightning maintain their defensive depth while gaining flexibility with their NHL roster. Tampa Bay has had an 8-man rotation on the blueline up until a week ago when Koekkoek was allowed to play in the AHL on a conditioning stint.

The move means Erik Cernak, who has impressed on the right side with the Lightning as a rookie, is staying in the NHL. Koekkoek, who is a lefty, has played well this season but was stuck at the bottom of the left-side depth chart. While lefty Mikhail Sergachev is able to play on the right side at times, Koekkoek was solely a left-side defenseman.

Coming into the 2012 draft Koekkoek was projected to go late in the first round but the Lightning, seemly focused on getting a future top-4 defenseman, grabbed him at 10 when seven defensemen had gone off the board when it was their turn. The Lightning passed over a falling Filip Forsberg for Koekkoek, who was coming off shoulder surgery. He would go through multiple shoulder surgeries that hindered his development in juniors with both Peterborough and Windsor. He enjoyed strong development under coach Bob Boughner with Windsor and was thought to be finding his top-10 form before being lost for the season with another shoulder issue.

A puck-moving, offensively productive defenseman known almost as a fourth forward when he was drafted, Boughner helped bring defensive responsibility to Koekkoek’s game while still allowing the speedy defenseman to stay aggressive offensively. The Lightning weren't as accommodating when Koekkoek turned pro, keeping him off the power play early in Syracuse and having him focus on defensive responsibilities to get him ready for the NHL.

Observers thought Koekkoek may have finally “arrived” in the NHL when filling in for an injury in the Lightning’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Penguins in 2016. The Ontario-native played fairly solid defense for a rookie and showed off his mobility in all three zones over 10 games, producing one assist. By the fall of 2016 he was back at the mythical popcorn stand as a healthy scratch while players like Matt Carle and Nikita Nesterov got minutes (then quickly fell out of the NHL). Koekkoek never really found a longterm spot again despite the Lightning making a deal with Vegas to pass over Koekkoek in the expansion draft.

The addition of Sergachev seemed to take Koekkoek’s projected future spot on the second pair left side, but understandably Sergachev was too good to pass up in the Jonathan Drouin deal. When the Lightning acquired lefty Ryan McDonagh, Koekkoek was bumped out of the top-6 again.

As coaches have said for decades, however, the NHL is not a development league and while some decisions under former coach Rick Bowness seemed as though Koekkoek was getting a raw deal, it was hard to argue with the Lightning’s on-ice success.

Prospect development is huge during a player’s rise to the NHL, but development has to meet opportunity and outside of the playoff run, Koekkoek couldn’t secure a long-term opportunity.

Moving forward, Koekkoek will look to break into the Blackhawks' top-6 and may get an extended audition as Chicago determines which players will be a part of their rebuild. He no longer projects as a top-4 defenseman but could explode with a change of scenery or at least settle in as a permanent, mobile third pair 2-way defenseman who can provide power play minutes if needed. His skating is still well above average and he can move the puck out of his zone. In the “new” NHL his skating should be an asset as defensemen prioritize puck retrieval and closing space against agile forwards.