TAMPA — Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said his confidence and comfort level are "night and day" better than in his rookie year last season.
And there are times the 6-foot-6 Swede shows flashes of stellar play, a reminder of why he was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft. One case was Saturday's 6-5 win over Colorado, when coach Guy Boucher said Hedman was one of the top players in the game.
"I thought he was really poised but kept his speed at the same time," Boucher said. "It's very easy to say but very hard to do. I thought he looked like a guy who was 27 out there. He was very good. Very good."
The key for Hedman, 19, like other young players, is to develop consistency. For example, he leads Lightning defensemen with 11 takeaways, but he has 25 turnovers, which ties him for ninth among NHL defensemen.
Boucher said he has been trying to manage Hedman's minutes and the situations he's put in to make sure he maintains his edge in the season's second half.
"He's been playing great in all situations," Boucher said. "We've got him playing the power play, got him playing the penalty kill; we had him for a long while playing against the top lines. The one thing we want to make sure is we don't wear the young guys out. The reality is that young guys, if you spot them in the right moments, have a good ratio of pressure times where they can manage it, I think it's worked out extremely well."
Hedman said he got mentally tired in the second half last season, adjusting to an 82-game schedule for the first time after playing at most 43 in Sweden.
"I tried to do plays I couldn't do," he said.
But Hedman said he benefited from a strong summer of conditioning and hasn't been overworked in games, logging less than 20 minutes 10 times in his first 26 games, including three with less than 17.
Hedman feels he has been playing at a high level, making better decisions on when to jump into the rush and "not trying to do too much."
"He's definitely improved in every aspect of his game," forward Ryan Malone said. "He's reading different situations, and I think back to a game where he pretty much took over when he had the puck. … It just takes some confidence … and the sky is the limit."
Boucher said it's much more difficult for a defenseman to adjust to the league than any other position.
"With those big boys, it is usually a long process — they're late bloomers," Boucher said. "They take a few years when they start the NHL to start blossoming. It's the one (position) where if you get beat, everybody is going to point the finger at you. It's a tough spot because you never want to look bad, but it's easy to look bad on defense. So it's very difficult, and I think he's managing it very well."
Hedman has two goals and nine assists this season. But Boucher points out that Hedman is never going to be a huge offensive threat, rather a "solid guy that's going to play against the top lines that is going to shut down the opponents, that's going to log a lot of minutes."
Said veteran defenseman Brett Clark: "Once he gets a little older and more mature, he'll be more consistent, game in and game out. But he's got a great shot, great skills, can skate. He has it all. It's just a matter of when it all comes together, he'll be fun to watch."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]