Lightning’s Hedman Reaching New Heights

Victor Hedman became the Tampa Bay Lightning’s all-time leading scorer for defensemen when he passed Dan Boyle by registering his 254th career point against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.

It’s just the latest accomplishment for the 26-year-old blueliner who was selected second overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the Lightning. Hedman has made a meteoric rise to one of the league’s top defensemen in just seven full seasons and is off to the start of a career year in 2016-17.

Victor Hedman (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
Victor Hedman (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

His 25 points rank second on the team in scoring and third among the league’s defenseman just 32 games into the season. He’s averaging a team-leading 25 minutes of ice time per game and played nearly 28 and a half minutes in the team’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Oilers.

He’s on a three-game point streak (one goal, five assists) and is playing an increasingly bigger role offensively with the club in the absence of captain Steven Stamkos.

As the Lightning inch closer to the midpoint of the 2016-17 regular season, let’s take a look at how Hedman became the player he is today and what the future holds for the Swedish blueliner.

Growing Up

Nicklas Lidstrom Norris Trophy
Nicklas Lidstrom (Icon SMI)

Hedman is a product of MODO Hockey — a historically powerhouse hockey club in his hometown of Örnsköldsvik, Sweden with an alumni list that includes legends like Per Lundqvist, Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund. Fellow Swedish superstars Daniel and Henrik Sedin also played three seasons with the club before beginning their NHL careers with the Vancouver Canucks.

Hedman’s unique combination of size (he’s now 6’6″, 223 pounds) and smooth skating ability had many scouts drawing comparisons of his game to fellow Swede Nicklas Lidstrom — the Hall of Famer and former Detroit Red Wings captain who won seven Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman during his NHL career. It was high praise and lofty expectations for a teenager who hadn’t yet played a game in North America. Other NHL superstars like Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara were also players whose names came up in discussions about Hedman’s future.

Arriving in North America

When Hedman was chosen by the Lightning in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, he joined a franchise in midst of a major transition period.

(Icon SMI)
Victor Hedman (Icon SMI)

After posting an NHL-low 31 wins in the 2007-08 season, John Tortorella was relieved of his coaching duties after more than six seasons, including the team’s lone Stanley Cup in 2004, for Barry Melrose. The Lightning were sold to Oren Koules in June 2008, in a deal finalized just days before they selected Steven Stamkos first overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

In July, the Lightning traded two of the team’s cornerstones on defense, Dan Boyle and Brad Lukowich, to the San Jose Sharks in a highly publicized trade brought about as a cost-cutting measure by the new ownership group.

The Lightning struggled in the 2008-09 season, as Melrose was fired just 16 games into the campaign before being replaced by Rick Tocchet. The Lightning’s 24-win season helped earn them the chance to pick second overall in the 2009 draft — one where forward John Tavares and Hedman lead their class.

Guy Boucher, right (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Guy Boucher, right (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

During his rookie season in 2009-10, Hedman showed signs of being the player many expected he would become in the NHL, while the Lightning improved to third in the Southeast Division — up two spots from the previous season. He posted 20 points in 74 games during his first season playing in North America and his 79 penalty minutes are still a career-high.

Off the ice, however, there were still changes to come for the organization.

The Lightning had been sold to Jeff Vinik in February 2010 and Tocchet was replaced with Guy Boucher before the start of the 2010-11 season. During his first season with the Lightning, Boucher lead them to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final — the team’s first trip past the opening round of the playoffs since 2004.

Jon Cooper
Jon Cooper (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Hedman tallied 26 points in 79 regular-season games before adding six assists in 18 playoff contests. In his first two NHL seasons, he benefited from the guidance of fellow countryman and NHL veteran, Mattias Ohlund. Despite Hedman’s success, however, it was clear that at 20 years of age, he hadn’t yet reached his full potential.

Hedman produced increasingly better points per game figures in 2011-12 (23 points in 61 contests) and 2012-13 (20 in 44). With just 16 games left in the 2012-13 season, Boucher was fired and Jon Cooper was promoted from the American Hockey League to the NHL club — a move that’s proven to be beneficial for Hedman and his teammates since that time.

Hedman broke out offensively when he tallied 13 goals and 42 assists in 75 games during the 2013-14 regular season. Offensive game aside, he’s been an increasingly bigger part of the team’s core on the defensive end of the puck as he’s continued to develop as an NHL blueliner.

Realizing His Potential

Hedman and the Lightning have broken out together over the past two seasons. Before the 2014-15 regular season, the team added to their roster, including Swedish defenseman Anton Stralman, who has paired with Hedman to form one of the league’s top 1-2 defense units.

Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Hedman got off to a strong start in 2014-15 but suffered a broken finger that kept him out of 18 games early in the year. He finished with 38 points in 55 games but emerged more defensively with a plus-12 rating — a career-high at the time.

However, it was during the Lightning’s run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final that Hedman took his game to another level. Paired against the team’s top scoring threats during four playoff rounds, Hedman minimized offensive opportunities for the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Despite falling to the Blackhawks in six games, his performance in 26 postseason games gave him national attention as one of the game’s best defensemen.

Hedman followed with another impressive campaign in 2015-16, as the compiled 47 points in 78 regular-season games and set a career-high with a plus-21.

When the Lightning met the New York Islanders in the second round of the 2016 playoffs, Hedman’s shutdown of Tavares (one goal in five games) was a major factor in the team’s quick work of the Islanders in the 2016 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Lightning were eliminated in seven games by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final but Hedman was in Conn Smythe Trophy discussions had the Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Future

Victor Hedman (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Victor Hedman (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hedman signed an eight-year, $63 million contract extension this offseason — on the same day goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy signed a three-year deal and just two days after Stamkos re-signed with the Lightning for eight years. Hedman’s $7.875 million annual salary is a bargain when compared to other elite blueliners like the Nashville Predators’ P.K. Subban ($9 million per year) and the San Jose Sharks’ Brent Burns (set to earn $8 million per season beginning in 2017-18) — figures Hedman would have reached or eclipsed if he chose to explore unrestricted free agency next summer.

Steven Stamkos (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Steven Stamkos (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For Hedman, staying in Tampa was a decision made in order to stay loyal to the club that drafted him — one that’s grown into a premier destination in the NHL under Vinik’s ownership — and to win a Stanley Cup with Stamkos and the rest of his teammates. Hedman himself spoke to this point shortly after his signing was announced by the organization.

“For me, it was never a doubt,” Hedman said, according to Gary Shelton. “Staying in Tampa was my No. 1 priority. For me, Stammer, we want to win together. That was obviously a big goal, to go all the way together with Tampa.”

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman also spoke about the importance of locking in one of the cornerstones of the franchise.

The Lightning have won just two of their past 11 contests in 2016-17, as they’ve battled a string of injuries to some of the team’s top forwards and costly turnovers, which Hedman has also been guilty of at times earlier in the season. His veteran presence, however, has been something the team has leaned on early in the season. He’s also playing some of the best hockey of his career of late, as his smooth skating ability is being used to generate quality scoring opportunities for the Lightning.

Despite being part of Norris Trophy discussion before the season began, Hedman’s focus is on helping the Lightning to a berth in the playoffs and a run to the Stanley Cup that’s elluded him and his teammates the past two postseasons.

If the Lightning can accomplish that goal, Hedman’s performance will certainly play a major role in making it a reality.