Koekkoek making big strides with Syracuse

by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com

Slater Koekkoek might have one of the best names in hockey, and it’s a name Tampa Bay Lightning fans should be hearing for a long time.

About to finish up his first professional season as a rookie with the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, Koekkoek is settling in nicely after four junior seasons in the Ontario Hockey League.

“I expected [the AHL] to be a rough and tough league, and that’s what it is. The guys are bigger, stronger, faster,” he said. “There was a bit of a learning process, but everything has been going well. I’m happy so far.”

Tampa Bay made him the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, showing good faith with the young defenseman after an injury saw him limited to just 26 games that year. That patience was rewarded when Koekkoek posted 82 points in 104 games over his final two seasons in the OHL.

The Lightning’s development model has proven beneficial for Syracuse and has set up a bright future for Tampa Bay. While Crunch graduates like Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, among others, are helping former AHL Coach of the Year Jon Cooper’s club to one of the best records in the NHL this season, Koekkoek is part of a core group of up-and-comers honing their craft in Syracuse while waiting for the opportunity up top.

“I’m trying to make my defending better, and bring it up to the level it needs to be at,” Koekkoek said. “Hopefully I’ve made strides here, and hopefully everyone thinks that. I’ll continue to work on my offensive side and see what happens.”

Koekkoek doesn’t have to look far for the stamp of approval.

“We’re pretty happy with [his development] as an organization,” said Syracuse head coach Rob Zettler, who played 569 NHL games as a defenseman himself. “He really needed to improve on his down low defending game and he’s made a lot of strides in that area. He’s got a great plus/minus; he’s a guy that we count on on the penalty kill and in late game situations. His speed allows him to do a lot of things defensively, not just offensively.”

The Winchester, Ont., native possesses a plus-12 rating on the season, tied for third among all AHL rookie defensemen. In addition, Koekkoek paces the Crunch’s blueline corps in goals (five, tied), assists (19), points (24), and shots on goal (104).

Zettler cites the leadership of forwards Mike Angelidis and Eric Neilson – as well as defenseman J.P. Cote – lending crucial guidance to the Crunch’s rookie group this season. Koekkoek in particular has taken to the trio’s on- and off-ice examples, hitting the ground running in terms of fully dedicating himself to improvement.

“They’re showing these guys how to be pros and how to approach your everyday routine. Slater has really fed off those guys,” he said. “He gets to the rink early, [and] he’s one of the last guys off the ice. He’s always working on things on the ice, on how to get better.”

The work he’s put in has paid off. As Syracuse sits on the brink of clinching a Calder Cup Playoff spot in the Eastern Conference while eyeing a division title, Koekkoek has earned more trust among Zettler and his staff to be reliable in late-game situations and to protect a lead in those waning moments of regulation.

Recently, the defenseman is not only protecting leads, he’s capturing them, too. His overtime winner against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on March 20 not only gave the Crunch their fourth win in a row at the time, it was Koekkoek’s first career extra-time tally, a goal he jokingly predicted to fellow rookie defenseman Dylan Blujus.

“At the beginning of the season, we weren’t really seeing overtime, so we’d always kind of joke on the bench, saying, ‘If I get called, I’ll get the winner.’ This time, coach called me,” Koekkoek recalled. “It was three-on-three, so I looked over at [Blujus] like I did before, and I said, ‘Don’t worry, Blu,’ and we kind of chuckled at each other. It ended up working out.”

Having just turned 21 in February, Koekkoek’s youth has proven to be a beacon for others to rally around, brightening up any room with a grin and a consistently easy-going demeanor. With how rigorous pro hockey can be, both mentally and physically, that lightness has helped to shake off a bad game or a grueling stretch of travel.

“Slater is a really fun kid to be around. When he walks in, he’s got a little bit of a presence about him,” Zettler said. “He’s got a smile, he’s a happy guy. He brings good energy and good vibes.”