Slater Koekkok has proven he has a professional hockey career ahead of him but it might not be with the Chicago Blackhawks
Back in the halcyon days of January 2019 when there was no pandemic, Jan Rutta (remember him?) and a 7th round pick were sent to Tampa Bay for Slater Koekkoek and a 5th round pick. At the time, it just seemed like the two teams were exchanging unwanted assets.
Rutta wasn’t getting it done for Chicago, and Koekkoek wasn’t living up to expectations after having been drafted 10th overall in 2012.
Before Chicago and Tampa Bay made the deal, Koekkoek had spent most of his time not playing for the Lightning, but their AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
There’s this quote from Joe Smith at the Athletic which sums this up saying,
"“Koekkoek, 24, leaned a ton on his family during his roller-coaster tenure with the Lightning, who drafted him 10th overall in 2012. There were three shoulder surgeries, countless trips shuttling back and forth from Syracuse in the AHL. There were doubters and plenty of frustration.Koekkoek always seemed like he was on the outside looking in — at least in terms of securing a regular role. The 35 games he played for the Lightning in 2017-18 were the most he played in the NHL over five seasons with Tampa Bay.”"
Even though Koekoek hasn’t done much more than hold down a position as the 6/7 d-man in the lineup, he’s proven himself to be a reliable depth player.
This is pretty cool for a guy that had to have multiple shoulder surgeries before he even really got a break in the NHL. He has shown that he can play at the highest level, but he’ll probably need to continue for another team.
Smith described his injuries pretty well,
"“The first surgery was to repair a labrum in his left shoulder in 2011, but it didn’t fix the real problem, a divot. The next season in the OHL, Koekkoek hurt his left shoulder again and it required another surgery. Then Lightning-GM Steve Yzerman set him up with a doctor in Detroit who performed a Latarjet procedure, done to reconstruct shoulders with instability.Koekkoek came back and played well for Windsor, but he hurt his right shoulder and was forced to have the same procedure.”"
The Blackhawks gave him a shot when he was kind of forgotten about in Florida. (Having to go through three surgeries, plus recovery time can probably have that effect!) He’s succeeded in at least working his way into the line-up, and honestly, that’s pretty impressive.
However, Koekkoek’s contract is up this year, and he’ll become a restricted free agent.
Looking at the number of defensemen the Blackhawks have in their system, it’s hard to see where Koekkoek fits into the long term plans. After languishing in the AHL early in his career, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he’d agree to a two-way deal on his next contract.
Most likely Koekkoek is gone, and Chicago will replace him with a rookie who will play alongside Olli Maatta on the third pairing.
If that’s the case, I can only wish him the best. He battled his way back from major injuries and demonstrated he could play with the best of them.