The Tampa Bay Lightning have seen breakout performances from several of their players during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Tyler Johnson has been an offensive catalyst alongside Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov on “The Triplets Line”. Alex Killorn has scored some big goals for Tampa while rookie goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has had to step in with Ben Bishop ailing. But the biggest breakout star for the Lightning has been defenceman Victor Hedman.
In the lead up to the 2009 NHL draft, John Tavares was the favourite to go first overall but there were more than a few that believed that Hedman was a worthy challenger to be the first pick. Tavares would go first to the New York Islanders while Tampa Bay, who was in need of a franchise defenceman after picking Steven Stamkos the year before, took Hedman second.
Hedman was considered to be the total package during his draft year. Big, mobile and smart with offensive ability, he was good enough to play in the Swedish league as a teenager. But the hype didn’t lead to instant NHL dominance. 18-year-old defencemen rarely dominate and Hedman was no exception. But despite the combination of moving up to the best league in the world, the culture change and playing on a Tampa team that wasn’t very good, Hedman’s rookie year was a success.
However, progression was slow for Hedman for his second and third NHL seasons. Offensively, he saw little improvement while his defensive game developed slower than anticipated. The Lightning continued to believe in Hedman but some were disappointed in the player who drew comparisons to Chris Pronger and expected immediate results. It didn’t help that he was being outshone by fellow Swedish defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who went sixth overall in the same draft as Hedman.
But it was during the lockout that Hedman found his game. He was dominant in 26 games in the KHL before the NHL started up again and he went back to Tampa with a new found confidence and started to look like the player he was projected to be. The last two seasons have easily been Hedman’s best years. He has started putting up numbers, no doubt due to playing on a much better team. But more importantly, he has been using his size at 6′ 6″ and 230 LBS (according to NHL.com) to assert himself physically in games while using his exceptional mobility to be a force at both ends of the ice. It seems unfathomable now to think that Hedman was left off the Swedish Olympic team in 2014.
Hedman’s development is the picture of patience. Even though he was a high pick, he didn’t emerge until last year and he hasn’t even hit his prime yet as a defenceman as he is still only 24. Every player develops at a different rate and Hedman just happened to take a little longer than anticipated. Fans sometimes expect high picks to become stars right away and it just doesn’t happen right off the bat. But in this case, the wait was worth it to see Hedman become a dominant defenceman.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith has been considered by many to be the best defenceman during this year’s playoffs, but Hedman is making it a competition. He has been relied on heavily for Tampa to be a defensive pillar and push the offense from the back end. He is using his gifts to his advantage and it’s safe to say Hedman has arrived and fans are starting to notice number 77 for the Lightning.