Montreal Canadiens Should Return Mikhail Sergachev to Junior

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18-year-old defenceman Mikhail Sergachev is the youngest player in the NHL this year. Drafted in the first round, 9th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens; Sergachev surprisingly made the Habs out of training camp.

Montreal Canadiens Should Return Mikhail Sergachev to Junior

Sergachev is clearly talented. As a 17-year-old he was named OHL defenceman of the year, playing with the Windsor Spitfires. His potential is immense, and he has an extremely good skill set, as described in our pre-draft scouting report.  In his two NHL games, he’s shown off his puck moving ability, with a few good rushes as well as the ability to retrieve the puck in his own end and skate it out of danger. With the puck on his stick, he looks extremely close to being NHL ready. While he did have a couple of hiccups and turnovers, they were the kind of thing that a young player can learn from.

However, when it comes to his play without the puck, Sergachev’s game needs some work. Over his first two games, he can often get himself out of position when defending against the cycle game. He also seems to be flat-footed at times. This is largely due to his indecisiveness when defending his own zone. The pace of the game at the NHL level is just a bit to quick for him right now. Instead of defending based on instinct, he seems to pause to think about what he has to do next. This can certainly be corrected with time, and it says little about Sergachev’s ultimate potential, but it does show that he is not ready today. He is a defensive liability in the NHL.

Improving Defensive Awareness

Many young defenceman have started out struggling defensively and improve as the years go on. The fact is that it is hard to be an 18-year-old defenceman in the NHL, which is also why so few 18-year old defencemen make the NHL in the first place. That said, there is only one way to improve. To go from overthinking what to do without the puck; cutting down shooting and passing lanes; knowing when to go for the hit and when to protect the lane to the net; knowing how to read a forward’s stick, hips, eyes, to see what he will do next. The only way is to continue to play and get ice time.

The Montreal Canadiens have played three games. Sergachev played 11:48 against the Buffalo Sabres in their opening game, with only 10:25 of that coming at even strength. He was sat in the press box in their second game.  In the third game he played just 8:30 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Those shifts were heavily sheltered, with 67% starting in the offensive zone.  Nursing a two, then three, then finally four goal lead, the Canadiens played Sergachev just two shifts in the third period.

With a three goal lead for over 15 minutes, and a four goal lead for almost six minutes; the Canadiens coaching staff did not trust the young defenceman on the ice.  The question becomes, how will Sergachev learn to be a better defender, if his coaches are terrified to put him in defensive situations? How much does he learn in the press box, or sitting on an NHL bench whenever there is a defensive zone draw?

What Next?

Now some will take that as a critique of the coaches. It’s not. The reason the coaches will not put him out on the ice is because he is not ready to play defence at the NHL level. There is nothing wrong with that, given his age. However, keeping him in the NHL, and not exposing him to key defensive situations does little to improve his defensive game. Instead Sergachev should be returned to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.

Windsor, is loaded offensive team, and set to host the 2017 Memorial Cup. In Windsor, Sergachev will play close to 30 minutes per game.  He will be used in all situations, and will match-up with the other team’s top lines. Windsor should go deep in the OHL playoffs, and will play in the Memorial Cup. Sergachev would also likely be on Russia’s World Junior Team. In other words he will be forced to defend against the best player’s in junior hockey, and in high stakes games. Of course, even the best junior players are a lower level of competition than third and fourth line NHLers, but the reality is that Sergachev is being sheltered at the NHL level, and only facing said players when he is given an offensive zone start. Being put in defensive situations will help him improve.

Effects on the Lineup

The longer Sergachev stays with the Habs, the more the team will have to double shift other defencemen to make up for the fact that he is playing less than 10 minutes a night. This is going to lead to big minutes for Shea Weber, who had 29 minutes in Tuesday’s game. That simply is too many minutes, and will eventually wear down any defenceman, even one as good as Shea Weber.  It will also lead to Andre Markov playing too many minutes.  This will mean that they will have less in the tank come playoff time, not an ideal situation for the club.

Sergachev is one of the best prospects in hockey, and a key to the Montreal Canadiens future. General manager Marc Bergevin must make the decision that is best for both the player’s long term future, and that of his hockey club; and that decision is clear. Sergachev must find himself back in the OHL, in the very near future. His time will come, it just is not here yet.

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