BRANDON - The darkened reddish scar line along Slater Koekkoek's left shoulder stands out to serve as a constant reminder of the battles he's already fought. Not even out of his teenage years, the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft has twice undergone reconstructive surgery on the same shoulder, the second performed in January to correct a problem not fixed by the first procedure done during his draft year. Learning he needed a second surgical procedure was tougher to absorb than any hit he'd ever taken into the end boards. "It was a pretty low point in my career so far, with it happening twice like that and letting down a lot of fans and wanting to prove myself as a high first-round pick, it was tough," said Koekkoek, one of 31 prospects taking part in Tampa Bay's summer development camp that runs through Wednesday. "But I think it has just made me stronger and wanting to prove that even more now."
The shoulder is not quite fully recovered, and Koekkoek is expected to be held out of the 3-on-3 tournament - he was part of last year's winning team - in order to ensure everything is 100 percent when training camp opens in September. The surgeries have limited Koekkoek to 68 games in the past two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, robbing the 6-foot-2, 185-pound defenseman of valuable development time. Despite that lost time, the Lightning have not lost any belief that Koekkoek will become a mainstay on their blue line in the near future. "Watching here (early in the camp, the injury) has not affected his skating at all; he's one of the best skaters out here," said Al Murray, the Lightning's director of amateur scouting. "He was one of the top defensemen in his age group before the injuries and since he's come back from the injuries we expect that he will jump right back to that status again." But there is no way to replicate game action, which raises the question as to what sort of setback the injuries cause for a younger player at a key time in his development. "It's always something that you are concerned about because he does not get the opportunity to be the go-to guy and have that feeling of responsibility and success that comes along with leading your team," Murray said. "So you always like them to get those experiences, but as long as he is willing to work as hard as he does, I think his skill level is where it was and his hockey sense is not going to disappear, and his skating is elite." After his second surgery, Koekkoek stepped away from social media and spent time trying to learn the guitar. But it was family and friends that helped him get through the grueling workouts and maintain his focus. "Getting to the NHL is what I thought about every day in the rehab," Koekkoek said. "I want to make the Tampa Bay Lightning this year and make a big impact on them and help them get in the right direction. That's my goal and that's what I think about every day, getting to that level and hoping I can get there." Should that accomplishment not be in the fold this season, Koekkoek will return to Windsor in the Ontario Hockey League - he appeared in two games for the Spitfires before the surgery shut him down for the season - where he figures to be one of the top defensemen on a team capable of competing for an OHL championship. "He works hard and is in good shape, we just have to be patient with him," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "He'll be fine. He's in a good program in Windsor, we expect him to be on a good team and have a good season. There is no need to rush him, we have a good prospect." [email protected] (813) 259-7835 twitter: @erlendssontbo