As much as I've expressed my desire for the New Jersey Devils to draft an offensively skilled forward in the first round, there is an argument to go with the defense. Part of that argument looks at the current blueline with the understanding that the once-hopeful youth movement has not panned out as expected. the other part of that argument notes that even if they did, there really wasn't that one offensive defenseman in the group. Yeah, Gelinas had a shot. Yeah, Severson's good on the puck. But there wasn't that one blueliner that could be an offensive generator. Someone who can log big minutes and create offense beyond having one particular tool. That someone could be had at eleventh overall and that someone could be defenseman Mikhail Sergachev.
Who is Mikhail Sergachev?
According to Elite Prospects, Mikhail Sergachev was born on June 25, 1998 in Nizhnekamsk, Russia. He's listed at 6'2" and 205 pounds. While he grew up in Russia, he made the jump to North American hockey last season in the Ontario Hockey League. With the Windsor Spitfires, Sergachev made his mark immediately - and often.
The profile at EP noted that Sergachev not only made the OHL All-Rookie First Team, appeared in the Canadian Hockey League Top Prospects game, and led all defenseman in the league in goals. He also won the Max Kaminsky Trophy for the league's most outstanding defenseman. Given that the OHL is home to some of the best U-20 talent in the world, that's an impressive achievement. He came into the province of Ontario, faced with the challenge inherent in acclimating to a new culture both on and off the ice, and he simply sparkled on the ice.
The only surprise was that he only made five appearances for Russia after playing so much for the U-17 and U-18 teams in 2014-15. I think that has to do with going over to Canada to play. He was a late call-in - seemingly like the rest of the Russian U-18 team, if I recall correctly - to represent at the World U-18 Junior Championships. It didn't go very well, but it was also on short notice too.
Let's put that 57-point season into some perspective at the OHL's stats page. Not only did he lead the entire league in goals by defenseman, but he finished just third to Rasmus Andersson (Calgary, 2015 2nd rounder) and Cam Dineen (we'll profile him later). Dineen was the only rookie defenseman with more points and Sergachev out-produced fellow defensive prospects, Jacob Chychrun and Olli Juolevi. Sergachev also put up 156 shots on net, the fifteenth most in the OHL among defenseman; a healthy average of 2.32 shots per game. Clearly, he's got a shot that mattered in 2015-16 and his fellow Spitfires have benefited from his play on the scoresheet as well. How is he regarded?
Where is Mikhail Sergachev Ranked?
Between the points, the position, the OHL hardware, and his size, someone may think Sergachev would be highly ranked. That someone would be right. Sergachev is in contention for being the first defenseman in this draft and could be a top ten selection. As with Brown and Keller, here's a summary of rankings available at Elite Prospects along with Steve Kournianos' ranking at The Draft Analyst:
|8 – NA
The timing of the rankings may vary, but the services think Sergachev could sneak into the top ten. While the Central Scouting Services rank him eighth among North American skaters, the fact that the top three European-based skaters will go in the first three spots means his ranking is effectively 11th. Just like Kournianos' ranking. It is worth noting that Kournianos had him going ninth in a mock draft he did in early May, so it possible his own rating will be higher in the near future. Opinions vary as to whether he'll go before or after Juolevi and Chychrun, but he's definitely in the mix.
What Others Say About Mikhail Sergachev
There is a short summary about the defenseman in his profile at Elite Prospects, so let's start there. This is what Curtis Joe wrote about him:
A dominant two-way defenceman whose tenacity and competitiveness characterize his style of play. Plays with a poise and confidence that facilitates his creativity with the puck as well as split-second decision making. Naturally fluid skater who is always looking to be engaged, if not the center, of each unfolding play. All-in-all, a diligent two-way defenceman who excels at finding ways to be a difference-maker in games.
This is a rather complementary summary; the sort you'd expect when a draft-eligible player wins his league's most outstanding defenseman award. It's also the sort of summary you'd expect for a defensive prospect that seems to do everything well. Is that the case? Let's go to a more detailed breakdown by Chris Dilks to find out.
Dilks did a profile at SBN College Hockey that breaks down his strengths and weaknesses. Given how touted he is, I'm a little more curious in the weaknesses. There was only one related to his actual game:
Sergachev is strong on his skates, but isn't a blazing fast skater. He's not the type of player that is going to be skating the puck end-to-end or joining in the rush frequently. His lack of speed can sometimes make it difficult for him to gain zone entry when bringing the puck into the offensive zone as well.
I certainly don't doubt Dilks' observations. It's just a bit surprising to see this given that he praised Sergachev's lateral movement. It only goes to show that skating can be broken down, something I need to recognize more and more. Anyway, it is one particular flaw that could grow to be an issue in certain situations. How often those situations will come up for a defenseman, well, your mileage may vary. That said, Dilks had a lot of good things to say about the defenseman so go read his work.
Let's go outside of the network and go to Kournianos' The Draft Analyst. As with most of the projected top picks for this year's draft, he's got a separate profile on Sergachev. Here's what I think was the best part of it:
Sergachev has anchored Windsor’s top pairing since the season began, logging minutes on both the top power play and penalty killing units. He possesses above-average speed, and owns a powerful stride which makes him difficult to stop when in full flight. Additionally, Sergachev is a mobile playmaker from the back end, capable of connecting on and receiving difficult passes, whether up the ice or diagonally through a maze of sticks. Most impressive is his hard shot, which he can fire with substantial velocity from the point’s deepest areas. The pace and complexity of the next level shouldn’t intimidate him, but his slot coverage is one area where he must improve to complete his development.
It's great because it blends in a lot of what's good about him while noting that he has some areas to work on. Just as important, he clarifies that the defenseman has played in all situations for Windsor. He's not just someone who's put into offensive situations, where he can succeed wildly. That said, he has been when he does get into those situations as evidenced by what Kournianos observed and Sergachev's own statline.
Since Sergachev played in the OHL, it's worth checking out the amazing OHL Prospects blog by Brock Otten. Sergachev definitely made Otten's top ten prospects coming out of 'O' this year. He made it at #5, behind only Chychrun among defensemen. Otten notes that Sergachev shares something in common with Aaron Ekblad, Ryan Ellis, Drew Doughty, Chris Pronger, and Bryan Berard: they all won the Kaminsky trophy in their draft eligible year. Here's what Otten had to say about his game:
I also love Sergachev's ability and poise when running the point on the powerplay. He possesses an absolute laser of a shot, specifically his one timer, which resulted in a league leading 17 goals from the blueline. Defensively, there are no doubt holes. His reads off the rush and in coverage are a work in progress. And he could stand to pick his spots a bit better when he chooses to jump up in the play. But here's the thing. The physical tools that he possesses suggest that his defensive game can and will improve. He's a willing physical combatant and can really lay the boom on forwards who try to go through him to the net. He's also a fantastic skater, which often covers up a lot of his errors at this level. If you're taking Sergachev early, you believe in his potential to be a perennial NHL all star, and I definitely see that.
Otten is a big fan of Sergachev and even thinks he could be a top six or seven selection, never mind a top ten pick. I am a big fan of Otten highlighting that while Sergachev does stand to work on his play in his own end, they are workable. I can agree with that. Experience will help him with when and when not to pinch in on offense as well as his gap control on defense. The other aspects of his game do sound like it is worth providing that experience.
Christopher Nardella of All Habs has a detailed profile on Sergachev that goes more into what he does and doesn't do well on defense. He has a bit more to say about the latter, noting that he doesn't quite have his "head on a swivel." This is also something that can be taught. Adam Larsson had the same issue for a few seasons and when he started to be on the lookout more often, it wasn't a coincidence he became more effective. Here's what Nardella wrote about his passing and his shot, which are certainly worth noting:
He makes risky plays on occasion in the name of creating offensive opportunities and makes audacious passes through lanes that few other defenceman in this draft class can. Despite being dependent on his shot in the offensive zone, his passing ability comes close to the same effectiveness as all forms of his heavy shot.
As previously mentioned, the projected first-round pick has a cannon of a shot from the backend. Along with his outstanding skating abilities, this is what helped make his transition to North American hockey so seamless. Sergachev has an extremely heavy shot and both his wrist and slap shots are very accurate, the most staggering portion of his game with the puck on his stick.
These really point to how much Sergachev can really contribute going forward. His skating skills mesh well with seemingly ideal traits for a defenseman on offense: someone who's strong on the puck, confident to make difficult yet effective passes, and willing to fire a low, powerful (or "heavy") shot. Having one player with all of that at their league's level is a treat for their team.
Lastly, I will turn to Ben Kerr of the Last Word on Sports. He profiled Sergachev as part of his Top Shelf Prospects feature. While his profile echoes what others have written about the player, I want to highlight this portion:
Sergachev is also a big body on the backend who plays good defence with a physical edge. He keeps his man to the outside, is strong on the boards and in front of the net, and generally plays strong in his own end. However, there are times when he could work better in front of his own net. He can sometimes lose his man in coverage, and will need to work on this going forward. He also has had a few off nights over the course of the year, and could stand to be more consistent on a night-in, night-out basis.
This isn't a player who has considerable size for the NHL level and doesn't use it. No, Sergachev is willing and able to get physical. Some of these profiles I've quoted note that this separates him from being a "typical" Russian or European defenseman. I'd like to think it also accelerated his acclimation to the North American game like his skating and shooting skills that Nardella pointed out. Kerr notes this as a positive and I can agree with that. He, like Kournianos, Nardella, and Otten noted, also highlighted some deficiencies on defense. As with them, I think they're fixable with experience - something he will definitely get, especially if his skills translate to the next level.
A Little Video
There are two videos of Sergachev that are well worth your time. First is a highlight video by The Draft Analyst that was put together in March. This is all with Windsor in this past season. He's wearing #31.
I love the bravery at the 0:48 mark where Sergachev beats a defender left of the slot, gets to the goal line, and then lays back a pass into the slot for a great goal. You can see him help finish an odd man rush at the 1:50 mark, which is nice to see. As for that heavy shot, you can see an example of a long-distance goal at 2:18. The highlight video includes some goals against, but not necessarily when Sergachev was out there. Maybe it was just included for context? Odd. Still, it's a good highlight video.
What's better than a highlight video? A video focusing on him for a full game. Pross Park has you covered with tape from a January 30, 2016 game against the mighty London Knights. Again, look for #31 in blue and white for the next twenty minutes:
A good example of Sergachev's poise is during the first power play shown in this video. In it, he handled the puck well and made good lateral passes to his partner on the point both with and without pressure coming at him. The two rushing Knights fazed him about as much as he looked when they weren't there. That's a positive. I like these videos for defensemen because they show how he reacts when something doesn't go well. That's crucial to the position. Someone who tries to make up for it and eventually does instills me with more confidence than someone who makes an error and doesn't, or worse, makes another one. In this video, Sergachev appeared to do a mostly good job in what turns out to be a blowout win against a quality opponent. I'd pay more attention to the earlier parts of the video when the score wasn't so lopsided.
An Opinion of Sorts
There are essentially two tiers of defensemen in this upper echelon of the first round. The first includes Sergachev along with Juolevi and Chychrun. The second includes McAvoy (Brian profiled him here), Jake Bean, Dante Fabbro, and Logan Stanley. Those who have seen him come away with a lot of positive things to say. The negative things can mostly be summed up to: he needs some more work on the actual defensive portion, but he can learn. Having the size, the skates, and the other offensive skills instill confidence in them that he can. I can't disagree with them at all. He's an offensive generator on 'D.' Therefore, I also can't disagree that Sergachev could very well be gone by the time the Devils get on the clock to pick on June 24.
That being said, a lot of what the Devils will do is dependent on how other teams view this class. If teams ahead of them go ahead and take Keller, Brown, and/or Jost earlier, then the likeliness that the Devils will have to consider this first tier of defensemen grows. If one of those three and Sergachev is available, then the Devils have a really tough choice. From what I've read, the stats he has, and seen in the video, it's arguable that Sergachev could be the offensive player to help the team in the near future that they need. Not a forward, but a defenseman who can really help generate the offense. The kind of player the Devils don't have in their system and haven't had in sometime. Imagine a combination of the Devils best defensive prospects of recent years and it's closer to what I'm concluding with this prospect. I would be more than OK with that. I would still prefer Keller and possibly Brown over him, but if Sergachev drops to #11 some how and Shero & Co. runs to the podium to take him, then I'm likely to call it a "win." I still don't think he'll fall that far though, but if he does, he has to be considered assuming he wouldn't be the first choice if available.
Mikhail Sergachev appears to be a defenseman who will more likely than not be gone by the time the Devils pick. I'd say he's on the upper end of the possibility list for New Jersey. As he should. He's big, he's very good on offense, he's got skills on defense that may need some work - like any 17 to 18 year old defenseman, and he's been very successful in his first season in North America. Who wouldn't want that in the first round? What do you think, after having read the profiles and/or seen the videos? Would you want the Devils to pick him in the first round if he's available? If you've seen him play in person, what did you think of him? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Sergachev in the comments. Thank you for reading.