TAMPA, Fla. — The incision the doctors made when they performed the last of the three shoulder surgeries Slater Koekkeok endured was still healing the day the Lightning drafted the Peterborough Petes defenseman 10th overall four years ago.
All that’s visible now, of course, is a barely noticeable scar. Good thing, too, because it appears the Lightning are going to ask Koekkoek (pronounced Coo-Coo) to shoulder a lot of responsibility along their blue line this season.
When the Lightning first trimmed their training camp roster by cutting veteran defenseman James Wisniewski and 23 others last weekend it was a strong indication they’re ready to give Koekkoek a chance to prove he’s ready to play a significant role at the NHL level.
Not that Koekkoek really has all that much left to prove. After all, he never looked out of place during a nine-game regular-season run with the Lightning late last season or during the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs in which he was tested almost immediately.
After being on the ice for all of about 10 seconds during his first playoff shift last April, Koekkoek soon found himself facing a potential welcome-to-the-NHL moment as he became locked in a one-on-one matchup against Islanders All-Star center John Tavares.
“He had Tavares coming down on him pretty hard and he defended him extremely well,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The thing is, you’re going to be put in situations like that (as a young defenseman) and so the question becomes, ‘How do you respond?’ Slater passed the test.’’
It would seem so. Though an injury to Matt Carle prompted the move initially, the Lightning wound up making Koekkoek a regular part of their playoff lineup, using him for an average of 10 minutes per game in each of their last 10 playoff games.
He responded well there, too, producing one point (an assist on a third-period Brian Boyle goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Penguins) while taking 20 shots, delivering seven hits, blocking six shots and recording a respectable minus-1 rating.
Granted, it was a small sample size, but it was enough to convince the Lightning to buy out Carle, who was due to make $5.5 million this season but was scratched in favor of Koekkoek in that Game 7 against Pittsburgh, and rightfully so.
Carle’s role was diminishing even before Koekkoek showed up. And when he performed at the level he did in the playoffs, it was an indication Koekkoek was indeed ready not just to take on an expanded role, but to contribute at both ends of the ice.
“He’s always had that ability,’’ Cooper said. “But now he’s got some confidence to go along with it. When you know you belong, it really helps you in this league, so every minute he plays he gets better and more confident.’’
Koekkoek is going to need that confidence. He’s still not a lock to make the Lightning out of camp. He still has to beat out Luke Witkowski, at least, to do that. Should he succeed, his role figures to be far more challenging than it was last season.
The talk around the Lightning camp is that Koekkoek, should he make the club, could wind up as part of one of the Lighting’s top two defense pairs, working alongside either Victor Hedman on the top pair or Braydon Coburn on the second.
No matter the assignment, Koekkoek says he’s up to the challenge.
“It’s everything I’ve worked for to get here and to have this opportunity, so hopefully I can make it and get that spot and help the team win and help us get back to the playoffs,’’ Koekkoek said.
“I mean, sometimes it does seem a little surreal, you know, coming here last year as a “Black Ace’’ just practicing with the team and then a week later I’m playing against the Islanders in the playoffs.
“But having that experience, it’s given me a real comfort level. I come in now as a guy now who’s had some experience, who’s played some games, and so I’m really hoping to be a part of things this year.’’