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Game #21 – Hawks vs. Lightning: Q&A George Fitzgerald

George is a contributor to RawCharge.com. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoFitz4. 

Best record in the league, four guys averaging more than a point per game, with Stamkos nearly at two points per game. Is there anything to complain about in Bolts-land?
– Only real complaint has been the usage of Slater Koekkoek. Jon Cooper has used seven defensemen for all but a handful of games this season. This was actually something I predicted would happen earlier in the off-season. With three young defensemen, it allows Associate Head Coach Rick Bowness to  balance the ice time of the younger kids and protect them. So far, Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr have rotated in-and-out of the 7th defenseman spot. It’s been a little bit frustrating because we feel that Koekkoek has played well in the time he’s been given, while Sustr has regressed and his flaws have been more exposed than ever. Koekkoek is a smooth skater and was once looked on as a potential #3 defenseman. He had three shoulder surgeries (two on one, one on the other) before even starting his professional career and that stunted his development a bit. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor complaint.
Brayden Point is already halfway to his rookie point total from last year. What do we need to know about him?
– Recently I’ve seen some comparisons of Point to Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews. Not saying that he’s up to Toews level… yet… but he’s the kind of player that does the little things right. He’s not a master at any one thing, but he’s just a very solid all-around player that plays great defense and produces offensively. His line, with Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde on either wing, have been tasked with taking on top lines. Expect his line to be out there a lot against Toews and Saad. Point was overlooked in his draft year despite his offensive output (36-55-91 in 72GP in WHL with Moose Jaw) because of his size and some minor questions on his skating according to reports at the time. Since then, he’s picked up a couple inches and probably 15-20 pounds. That extra size and the work he has put in with renowned skating coach Barb Underhill allowed him to really bring his game to the next level. He was the first AHL-eligible professional rookie to make the Lightning out of training camp under Steve Yzerman. That’s just not something that happens with this organization anymore.
Mikhail Sergachev has 14 points and was the offseason’s big acquisition. Is he already the second puck-moving d-man the Lightning have needed behind Hedman. 
– Most definitely. The Lightning had a bit of a luxury in having three elite forwards on the roster. But they really only had one elite defenseman, as good as Anton Stralman is. Sergachev is proving to be that second player and he has more goals and points than Jonathan Drouin this season. Habs fans though will rightfully point out that Sergachev has a much better supporting cast in Tampa than he would of had in Montreal and he likely wouldn’t be producing like this north of the border. He’s a smart, charismatic kid that has a great work ethic and it comes through in the Russian interviews RawCharge has translated. He’s mostly been paired with Anton Stralman who has proven to be a great compliment to him. Stralman had career offensive seasons when he joined the Lightning but cooled off last season away from Hedman. But what he did with Hedman is the same thing he can do for Sergachev – give him a solid defensive presence that is an excellent communicator and will let him do his thing. He’s also earned his way on to the second power-play unit and has shown a knack for getting pucks on net through bodies.
How is Dan Girardi rocking positive underlying numbers when he was an utter disaster in New York?
– So, funny thing about that. @LoserPoints, our resident advanced stats experts, was just chatting with the rest of the staff about Girardi’s numbers a few days ago. With the Lightning using seven defensemen, it means that everyone is getting a chance to play with everyone else. When Girardi has been with Sergachev, he’s posted some ridiculously good numbers. With every one else, his numbers are mostly in the negative. A lot like his normal partner Braydon Coburn, he doesn’t push the pace offensively, but he has been better at limiting defensive chances for the Lightning. He’s been able to compliment Sergachev in the limited time they’ve played together and Sergachev’s offensive instincts has helped to buoy Girardi’s numbers. Girardi also mentioned in interviews before the season that last year he was slowed down by a nagging foot injury. That’s healed (though it’s only a matter of time before he’s hurt blocking a shot) and that has shown through in his positioning.
If this team doesn’t come out of the East, it will be because….?
– Injuries, particularly to Andrei Vasilevskiy or Victor Hedman. Vasilevskiy in particular is one of the big keys to this team going deep. While the offense is bound to cool off sooner or later, they do have tremendous scoring depth in the top eight forwards. There are some replacement options up front in the AHL in the form of veteran Cory Conacher and prospects Adam Erne, and Matthew Peca. The blue line is a little bit shakier, but the team could weather an injury there, maybe two. Having kept Koekkoek and Sustr, the Lightning are carrying eight NHL defensemen. In the AHL though, the depth just isn’t there. Jamie McBain is the lone defenseman with any NHL experience, though his experience is ample with over 300 games in the NHL. Beyond that, there’s one AHL veteran that could fill-in, one that is already on the bottom of the AHL line-up, a third-year pro, and then two each in their first and second years in the AHL. The goaltending depth picture did get a little bit better with a trade for Louis Domingue to replace Michael Leighton who had been struggling in the AHL. However, a pairing of Domingue and Peter Budaj doesn’t give fans the most confidence unless Domingue can return closer to what he’s shown in the past with the Coyotes.

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