Victor Hedman has arrived and is not going anywhere anytime soon. Bolts fans are going to be treated to not only the Steven Stamkos show this hockey season, but the Victor Hedman show as well. Through the first week of the season Hedman has scored 4 goals and added 3 assists for 7 points. He leads all NHL defenseman in points so far this year.
Hedman has been nothing short of spectacular for the Tampa Bay Lightning so far. Hedman plays in all situations, skates like the wind for a player of his size, can play in a shutdown role, and is an excellent puck mover. Hedman is the team’s best defenseman and most important player outside of Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop. Last season Hedman put up a career high 55 points on 13 goals and 42 assists. He played the point on the power play and was a force at times. Hedman was a big reason the Lightning made the playoffs last year. However, the 2009 2nd overall pick took a few years to develop. The game did not come easy to Hedman at the NHL level his first three seasons.
Hedman’s Early Struggles
Hedman was inconsistent his first three seasons in the league. So inconsistent that he was overlooked by Team Sweden at the 2014 Olympics despite having a breakout campaign last year. It is easy to understand why Bolts fans may have been frustrated with Hedman’s slow start to his career. I’m sure that the pick after him at 3rd overall made the fan base even more anxious, and added a little bit of pressure to Victor Hedman as well. That pick was Matt Duchene who had a very good rookie year during the 2009-2010 season and instantly established himself as an NHL star at the age of 18. For Bolts fans it is important to note that even though expectations for Hedman were so high, making the jump into the NHL as a teenage defenseman is a daunting task to say the least. Not many defensemen are ready to take their game to that level as a teenager. Hedman experienced a lot of growing pains during his first few seasons. He just needed time to adapt to the game, make smarter decisions as a defenseman, learn to balance his raw offensive upside with a reliable game in his own zone, and just to simply gain confidence with the puck. Hedman was predominantly an even strength player his first few seasons. Then before his 4th year, at the start of the 2012-2013 NHL season, the lockout occurred and no player took the opportunity to get better quite like Hedman did.
During the NHL Lockout Hedman joined Barys Astana a team in the KHL that plays out of Kazakhstan. During this time the 6’6 Swede started to become the dominant force that he is right now. Hedman was able to get a lot of ice time for this club and was able to play a ton on the power play. Hedman had wanted to see more power play time with the Lightning prior to his experience in the KHL. In 26 KHL games Hedman scored 1 goal, added 20 assists, and was a plus 18 while logging a ton of ice time and power play time for the club.
When Hedman returned to the NHL during his first interview session with the Tampa Bay media, he had nothing but very high praises for his experience in the KHL.
“Playing in the KHL helped me a lot too, it was a good paced game, obviously with bigger ice and not as physical as over here, but so many good players over there too, so it was good for me to play there,” said Hedman
“ My offensive game I think got a real good boost by playing almost two minutes every power play,” said Hedman.
Hedman’s KHL Experience
The KHL is known to be a highly skilled league; a very fast paced, and with more open space for players to operate when they have the puck due to the larger ice surface. There are less hits and teams playing a grinding style. Teams in the KHL do not play Boston Bruins or LA Kings hockey where opposing players have to be aware of getting hit every time they touch the puck as soon as they touch it. Instead there is more room to make plays on the ice.The larger ice surface allowed Hedman to gain more confidence in his offensive ability. It created opportunities for Hedman to play in a top role for his team and gain valuable experience in the offensive area of his game.
The success he had in the KHL gave him more confidence when the puck was on his stick. He clearly brought that confidence back to the NHL level and realized that he could be a star at the National Hockey League level as well. An interesting note from his stint in the KHL is that he played on the same team and apparently was paired up at times with newly named New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. I find this to be very interesting because both were very young into their careers at the time they went to the KHL, and have become similar players today for their respective clubs. McDonagh and Hedman both are lefty shots, play on the top defensive pairings for their teams, log a ton of ice time, play first unit power play and penalty kill, and are willing to sacrifice the body and lead by example. Both of these players have emerged since the shortened season of 2013 as elite NHL defenseman. During their brief time as teammates McDonagh unfortunately suffered a minor injury and was forced to return to the United States after just 10 games in the KHL. McDonagh spoke highly of his time in the Barys Astana organization as well.
Hedman Is Still Growing as a Player
It is not out of the question to think that Hedman could be included in the Norris Trophy conversation as early as this season. The great part of all of this if you’re a Lightning fan is the fact that Hedman is not done growing as a player, I believe he will continue to get better in the next season or two. Instead of playing in the KHL All-Star game Hedman was on a flight back to Tampa Bay as soon as the lockout ended. He wants to be a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization for years to come, and at the time just simply wanted to prove that he could be a key contributor.
Back in January 2013 Hedman stated, “I think I have picked up my game to a higher level, so I’m just excited to step on the ice here and prove it in the NHL too.”
Proving it is exactly what number 77 has done.