Mikhail Sergachev’s potential was being discussed before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday when Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper paid the 22-year-old defenseman the ultimate compliment.”I’ve had the pleasure of watching Victor Hedman grow the last eight years, and there are similarities to the two with how they started their careers and where they’re going,” Cooper said. “I don’t think [Sergachev] has a ceiling. I think he’s going to keep getting better.”
That’s quite a statement considering Hedman has been nominated for the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL in each of the past four seasons (2017-20) and won it in 2018. 
Sergachev and Hedman are one win from their first Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay entering Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). The Lightning lead the best-of-7 series 3-2.
Sergachev appeared to score the Cup-clinching goal for the Lightning in Game 5 on Saturday when his goal 3:38 into the third period game Tampa Bay a 2-1 lead. But Dallas’ Joe Pavelski tied the game with 6:45 remaining in regulation, and Corey Perry won it at 9:23 of the second overtime.
“He’s so strong on the puck, he shoots the puck hard like we saw on his goal last night,” Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said Sunday. “He’s grown so much as a player. He’s becoming a great defenseman.”
The goal gave Sergachev 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 24 games this postseason. Playing on the Lightning’s third defense pair with Erik Cernak, he’s averaged 22:58 ice time per game, third behind Hedman (26:31) and Ryan McDonagh (24:20). 
Video: DAL@TBL, Gm5: Sergachev takes lead with one-timer
Like Hedman (6-foot-6, 229 pounds), Sergachev is a great skater, especially for his size (6-3, 216). Each was a first-round draft pick; Hedman was selected No. 2 by the Lightning in the 2009 NHL Draft and Sergachev was chosen No. 9 by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Tampa Bay acquired Sergachev in a trade with the Canadiens for forward Jonathan Drouin, who Tampa Bay selected No. 3 n the 2013 NHL Draft, on June 15, 2017.
Sergachev, who had no points in four games for the Canadiens 2016-17, has scored 106 points (25 goals, 81 assists) in his first three seasons (224 games) with Tampa Bay.
Hedman scored 69 points (12 goals, 57 assists) in his first three seasons (214 games) with the Lightning.
Former Lightning forward Ryan Callahan, a teammate of each player from 2017-19, can see the comparison.
“I think they’re both very offensively minded, and when I say that, they have the talent and ability to read the play and make those plays,” Callahan said. “And their skating abilities, Hedman’s skating ability and his speed, how big he is, his stride, he’s never out of a play and you can see that from [Sergachev] as well. There are definitely some comparables there. 
“That’s pretty good for Sergachev to get that praise from [Cooper]. Hedman is a world-class defenseman, a Norris winner. That’s pretty big praise from [Cooper], but I think it’s spot on.”
Sergachev said he has benefitted from learning from fellow defensemen, from teammates such as Hedman, McDonagh and Braydon Coburn to former Lightning players Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi.
“Everybody helped me a little bit,” Sergachev said. “[Stralman], I played with him more than half my first year. He was steady, always making the right play. That’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m not risking too much. He was always in the right spot and good defensively. McDonagh, Coburn, my first year and [Hedman], obviously. I was always trying to be in the right spot.”
Sergachev has always been strong on offense but Callahan said he’s seen Sergachev make great strides on defense. 
“I think it’s his physicality and using his body,” he said. “I remember going against him in practice even his rookie year with us, running into him and thinking how solid he was. I was just dying for him to use his body more out there and this year, he’s doing that. His confidence level was high as such a young player. 
“It takes a little time for a defenseman in the NHL to mature and grow. I don’t think it’s as easy for a young defenseman as it is a forward to play on both sides of the puck, and I think that’s what he’s really excelled at this year, is the way he’s playing defensively.”
Sergachev’s defensive improvements have led to more responsibility, especially on the penalty kill. After playing a total of 16:31 in 75 games on the kill in 2018-19 (16th on the Lightning), he played 81:18 in 70 games this season (eighth). 
“I think the coaches trust me,” Sergachev said. “And I think I’m getting better. [Penalty killing], my positioning to [be] better in the D-zone. I still make dumb mistakes, but it happens to everyone. I keep learning, keep growing. Obviously, I’m not where I want to be in my game, I want to be better. But coaches trust me, and I try to do my job there.”
Video: TBL@BOS, Gm3: Sergachev hammers dish on power play
Sergachev needed a little more time than Hedman to become NHL ready. Hedman scored 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in 74 games for the Lightning in his rookie season in 2009-10 and was a steady part of Tampa Bay’s lineup from then on. Sergachev made his NHL debut with the Canadiens on Oct. 13, 2016. He played four games for Montreal that season but spent most of it with Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League, where he also played the previous season. He scored 43 points (10 goals, 33 assists) in 50 OHL games in 2016-17.
Trevor Letkowski was Windsor’s assistant coach, working primarily with defensemen when Sergachev was there.
“When he had the puck on his stick, especially in junior, he was able to do great things offensively right away and he could shoot the puck really well, although that continued to improve,” said Letkowski, now the Windsor coach. “His biggest issue was his play away from the puck and some body-language stuff, which we get a lot of that in junior. But especially for guys we think have a real good chance to play in the NHL, we feel it’s a big thing.
“Basically, [it was improving] his defensive awareness, and just kind of staying engaged in shifts. He would just be kind of watching the play instead of being engaged and getting available for the puck or helping defend someone else away from it, like box out, things like that. His biggest learning curve was just being engaged at all times in his shift.”
Former Windsor coach Rocky Thompson said the Russia-born Sergachev quickly soaked up everything, from learning English — “after six weeks, he could really understand what we were saying, and he started to communicate much more clearly,” Thompson said — to improving his play away from the puck and his on-ice vision.
“[Sergachev] would always look down at the puck as he was dragging it,” said Thompson, who was named associate coach of the San Jose Sharks on Sept. 22. “He had a ton of skill, but his eyes were never forward, he was never scanning the ice. That was a small thing, and for some players it’s really hard to adjust to that. With [Sergachev], man, he was able to pick that up quickly. We would show him video of these things and say, ‘Look at what an NHL top defenseman who runs the power play, look what he looks like when he’s carrying the puck.’ It was so easy for him to see.
“When he started to see the ice better, it really started to open things up. Then all those other assets that he had in his bag, he always had a heavy shot, he skated extremely well, he handled the puck better, he worked the blue line so much better when his eyes were up, because he could see what was coming at him and he could see past what was coming at him, where before, with his peripheral vision, he could really only track what was in a 10-15 foot range. That opened things up.”
When the Lightning acquired Sergachev they already had several defensemen who were left-handed shots. So they moved him to the right side and paired him with Coburn on the Lightning’s third pair. He was brought along slowly, averaging 15:22 of ice time per game in 2017-18, most of it at even strength.
“When [Sergachev] started out, we kind of protected him on the third pair,” Cooper said. “He didn’t really play against the big lines, he got minimal power-play time and it was just a slow feed because he really needed to learn how to defend. The offensive instincts are always going to be there. When he started grasping the defensive side of things and some of the nuances that go on in the game, I think his game really took off.”
Stars coach Rick Bowness worked with Sergachev in his final season as Lightning assistant coach in 2017-18.
“Some guys, they don’t want to see a lot of video,” Bowness said. “They don’t like to overthink it. After every game, [Sergachev] would be knocking on my door, ‘Can we look at video? Can we look at video?’ So it made me get ready for him, because I knew he was going to be knocking on the door.
“I knew working with him (in 2017-18) that he was going to be the player he is today. He really wanted to get better. You can see the skill. He has all the skills in the world; he’s a great skater, he’s far more competitive than people give him credit for, he’s improved his defensive play, as he should have over the last couple of years. I really enjoyed my time with him and I’m not one bit surprised that he’s the player he is today.”
Sergachev has made great strides in his first three NHL seasons. Cooper said he sees shades of Hedman in him, and Sergachev could be following in Hedman’s footsteps in individual honors in the future, too.
“He has the potential to be a Norris Trophy candidate, and I know he believes that,” Thompson said. “You see him in the playoffs, you see his game is starting to round out more the last couple of years as far as without the puck, and the offensive skill that he’s always had is really starting to come to the forefront as well as he’s gained this experience. He’s done a great job of helping his team get to a position where they’re on the cusp of an opportunity to win a championship here.”