Nobody ever wants to hear it. They may know it. They may understand it to be true. But they never want to admit it, see it, or hear it be spoken out loud. The regression of a star player, who has played at an elite level for many seasons for the team that drafted and developed them, is held high on a pedestal by the fans. They’re treated like royalty. When someone speaks down about them, they are met with angry fans ready to defend that player to the death. But in the case of Tampa Bay Lighting defenceman Victor Hedman, it’s time that concerns about a regression must be said out loud.
Tampa Bay Lightning Defenceman Starts Worrying Career Regression
Before we go any further, let it be known: this is not a hit piece, or a piece saying that Hedman is certainly falling off a cliff and there is no righting the proverbial ship. But there are issues in his game, cracks that are becoming larger and far more noticeable. But this writer is willing to take the heat, as a big Bolts fan and someone who idolizes Hedman. It must be said because it is becoming evident. It’s time to know why it is happening, and how it could, possibly, change for the better.
Victor Hedman has been one of hockey’s great modern-day players. The 6’6” and 241-pound defender may even go down in history as one of the greatest players to come out of Sweden. He is a six-time all-star, won the Norris Trophy in 2017-18 as the league’s best defenceman, and was nominated for that honor for the last six seasons in a row. Perhaps even more impressive are his two Stanley Cup rings and four Cup appearances in his career, with a chance for more in the near future. He is beloved in Tampa by fans, coaches, and teammates. As a matter of fact, he set career-highs in points, assists, and goals just last season. What “regression” could even possibly be thought of?
Offence Has Never Been An Issue – And Still Isn’t
There are absolutely no questioning Hedman’s offensive abilities. This season, he has scored one goal and nine points across the first 16 games. That puts him at 0.5625 points per game pace. To this point, it is his worst rate since the 2012-13 season (0.45 points per game that year).
But the Tampa Bay Lighting defenceman offensive skills are still not what is in question. What is in question is his defensive abilities, along with his ability to defend the rush. There have been some questions asked about his abilities by this writer in those areas. Starting in the 2019 playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. In one particular play, Hedman, who was injured at the time, got walked by David Savard. Savard is an NHL player, so he is still a very, very talented hockey player, but relative to the rest of the NHL, he has below-average puck skills. So that play stuck out. So, some detective work ensued.
Ability To Defend The Rush
First, let’s shout out CJ Turtoro and Corey Sznajder for putting together the stats on Hedman’s abilities to defend the rush from 2016-2021. For those that have not heard of those names before, Sznajder tracks micro stats to this day, for every team (not every game, however), and has his own site (subscription required). Turtoro put together stats gathered by Corey (from 2016-2020) into visuals that are easier to understand for those who may not have extensive knowledge of analytics. Using both of their works, Hedman’s rush defending was tracked. Let’s break it down.
Hedman, in a four-year span (2016-17/2019-20), ranks in the 42nd percentile of NHL defenders in controlled entries allowed percentage. What that means is Hedman is better than 42% of all NHL defenders in that time frame when it comes to how many entries he allows across every rush he has directly faced. To be exact, he allowed an entry on 64.87% of rushes faced, with control.
So Far In 2022-23
Unable to find 2020-21 or 2021-22 stats for this, this writer decided to track what was possible for this season. In a small sample of five games, Hedman has allowed the second-highest controlled zone entries against (69.23%) behind only Haydn Fleury who was only tracked in one game (75%). Additionally, he has given up the second-highest percentage of rush chances off of those entries that he gave up (75% of his entries turned into scoring chances). Only Sergachev was worse (87.5%) and that was largely due to the New York Rangers’ opening night game, where he was especially bad. He hasn’t been nearly as bad since.
With his declining offensive game (which isn’t a total concern… yet), and his evident issues against the rush, it’s clear why this article was thought up. Sure, it was triggered by the struggles on the power play. This was also skewed towards focusing on this specific area because of that one goal against a few years ago. But it is harder to ignore with each game. But that’s not the only concern.
Hedman’s Defensive Zone Struggles, Part One
His struggles defending the rush have been well-documented to this point, albeit never talked about. One would think a 6’6” and 241-pound defender, who is considered elite and always talked up about playing a very complete game, would have no issues defending against the rush. But alas, that is apparently the case. However, surely using his size, reach, and surprisingly good skating, he should effectively shut down the opponents once they do break in, right?
The first indicator that suggests that isn’t the case is the high amount of chances allowed off of the entries he gave up this season. But again, it’s much deeper than that. Going back in time, let’s split Hedman’s career in half. From 2009-10 to 2015-16 (six seasons), Hedman ranks 92nd among all defenders with at least 2500 minutes of total ice time in one very important analytic. This analytic is called EVD/60, or even-strength defence goals above replacement per 60 minutes. He scored 0.092 in that category.
Even strength is not the only place that is important to look at for defensive impact. Amongst defenders with at least 200 minutes short-handed, in that same span, where does the Lighting defenceman rank in short-handed defence goals above replacement per 60 (SHD/60)? He ranks 40th, which is not terrible, at 0.306. But he still isn’t a top-30 defender, which in essence means he is not a number-one in that area for the penalty kill. Which, for a player of Hedman’s assumed caliber, is not good enough.
Defensive Zone Struggles, Part Two
Now, let’s look at the second half of his career thus far. From 2016-17 to 2021-22, Hedman ranks 73rd in EVD/60 in that span with the same thresholds (2500+ minutes) and 17th in SHD/60 (200+ short-handed minutes). There was an improvement, certainly, over the last few years. That’s notable, but he still regressed this season.
The Tampa Bay Lighting defenceman, among defenders with at least 200 minutes played thus far, ranks 161st out of 167 defenders in EVD/60, with a score of -0.512. That’s the worst on his own team. When it comes to SHD/60, Hedman ranks 101st out of the 122 defenders with at least 25 minutes of short-handed ice time, with a score of -1.053. He has just been poor this season. In an area of his game that he had actually improved over the course of his career, as well. Early on, he was not the best in terms of defensive impact. But this year has, so far, been a disaster.
Digging Deeper Into His 2022-23 Defensive Struggles
But that isn’t all. Victor Hedman, amongst his own teammates, is the worst in the following categories: Corsi against per 60* and shots against per 60. Meanwhile, he is second-worst in expected goals against per 60, and scoring chances against per 60, behind only Foote in those categories. A lot of those things can be blamed on linemates. However, that’s also looked into.
Only two players that Hedman has played with have seen their expected goals for percentage (xGF%) drop without him. 23 of the 25 players Hedman has played with all improved that percentage playing away from him. Brandon Hagel and Ian Cole are those two players, and their xGF% with Hedman was at 58.25 and 58.79 respectively. Their regression without him was minimal (57.23 and 57.99, respectively).
Reasons For Optimism
This piece has largely been doom and gloom. But there is something to lean on when it comes to being an optimist of situations like these. Sure, Hedman is older, not quite as fast as he once was in a league that is consistently getting faster, and continues to struggle against the rush. But in years past, he found ways to mask it by being elite offensively and at least reliable on his own end. But there is an explanation behind his sudden cliff-fall analytically in the defensive zone department and an explanation behind his slight step back offensively.
Hedman missed a game earlier this season due to a “maintenance” day. That means he was dealing with a lingering injury issue and needed a night off to rest and get better. Nothing to be concerned about in the long term. However, the lingering issue could be causing Hedman issues in terms of confidence in certain situations.
The Potential Of A Lingering Injury And Its Effects
For example, the power play. He was not shooting the puck as one would hope from him. Thus, he is not being much of a worry for the opposing penalty killers. So, they took away the other top options, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. They were not worried about Hedman anymore. He got usurped by Sergachev. Defensively, when retrieving pucks that were dumped in deep, if he feels pressure from a forechecker, he seems to play hot potato with the puck, and blindly rim it up the boards. In the second Washington Capitals game, it happened on multiple occasions. Could he have an upper-body injury that forces him to worry about contact along the wall and getting off hard shots from the point?
Fact of the matter is, it seems like Hedman is dealing with something. It’s taking away his effectiveness offensively and in board battles. Additionally, with those struggles, he is getting more frustrated and less confident in himself. That’s leading to even more mistakes due to said frustration. It also leads to hesitations, which is seen when he pinches in the offensive zone, due to losing confidence in himself. What Hedman needs is to take some more nights off. Once some other guys get back and healthy (Zach Bogosian, Callan Foote, Erik Cernak). Then he needs to get some confidence after that rest with one vintage Hedman performance. Have him earn back his power play spot on the top unit. Then maybe, just maybe, we can all get to witness Victor Hedman at his best once again.
*-Z-Score is a measurement that describes said point of value, in this case, Hedman’s success against the rush. It’s relationship to the average of all NHL defenders in that same statistic.
*-Corsi-Against is a measure of shot attempts taken by the opposition while a player is on the ice. Shot attempts are any shots taken, whether they hit the net or not.
Tracked stats from 2022-23 gathered by Kyle Pereira
Transitionally stats tracked before the 2022-23 season gathered by CJ Turtoro and Corey Sznajder
Analytics and raw stats taken from Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and Hockey Reference