For many, it's hard to believe today is Victor Hedman's first All-Star Game appearance.
"Really, his first one?" Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns said. "Wow."
As Lightning coach Jon Cooper says, it has been a long time coming for Hedman, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft who is in his eighth season. Ask around the league and you'll hear that Hedman, 26, has established himself among the best on the blue line.
"Elite, elite," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "One of the top two or three defensemen in the league."
"A complete package," Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell said. "A No. 1, big-time defenseman."
Hedman and wing Nikita Kucherov, the other Lightning first-time All-Star, have been bright spots in what has been a disappointing season for Tampa Bay, which remains out of a playoff spot. With captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery) sidelined since Nov. 10, Hedman and Kucherov have stepped up as the team's top scorers. Hedman is playing more minutes than he has in his career.
"He's really the engine that drives that team," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said.
Hedman's production has jumped, too. Hedman's 38 points rank third among league defensemen, behind two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (39) and Burns (51). At 6 feet 6, Hedman is a rare blend of size, skill and speed, having come a long way in his development.
"When he first came into the league, he was extremely raw, and personally I didn't think he was that difficult to play against," Sabres wing Kyle Okposo said. "I can't say the same thing anymore.
"Every time you match up against him, you know it's going to be a long night. He's a tremendous skater, one of the top defensemen in the league, in my opinion."
Kings coach Darryl Sutter loves the risk Hedman has in his game, the unpredictability of when he joins the offensive rush. Bylsma thinks Hedman might be the best in the league at executing long stretch passes. Okposo said that even when you think you have Hedman beaten, he can recover. DeBoer believes Hedman is a lot like Burns, with the size and ability to go around, and through, you.
That's a high compliment to Hedman.
"For either of us," Burns said. "He's an elite guy."
And finally an All-Star.
The Tampa Bay Times caught up with some of the other elite defensemen — Burns, the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith and the Kings' Drew Doughty, last season's Norris Trophy winner — to get their take on Hedman's game. And Hedman discussed what he admires about them.
Burns on Hedman: "He's a great player. He's a big guy that skates well. He plays with a lot of great skilled guys, similar to my position here. You play with great players, that really makes it easier for you. It elevates your game."
Hedman on Burns: "He's strong on the puck, shoots everything. He finds open guys. Just his consistency. He's up to 50 points now. He's a key contributor. I like the way he shoots a lot; and not just a big slapper, wrist shots. It's pretty impressive what he's done so far."
Keith on Hedman: "He's 6 foot 6, the way he can skate and move the puck, I think Tampa Bay is pretty lucky to have a guy like that. Most of the time as defensemen, it takes a lot longer to develop. He's come into his prime just now, and he's probably going to be there for a long time. Just from playing against him, what stands out is his skating ability, his speed. From his size, you don't see that too often."
Hedman on Keith: "He plays every situation. Playing him in the playoffs (in the 2015 Stanley Cup final), he played over 30 minutes a night, never seemed to fatigue. He kept getting better and better, just his stamina. He blocks shots. And just like Burns, he makes guys around him better. He has no weaknesses."
Doughty on Hedman: "There are guys around the league who are unbelievable defensively and don't get a lot of recognition. Those are the d-men I like to watch, and I like to say are some of the best defensemen because they're playing (a) two-way (game). It's not about points, not about who scores the most goals. A lot of times, those guys are high risk and aren't as good defensively. For me, the best defensemen are guys that play both ways and are on the ice in all key situations, and from what I've seen, that's what (Hedman) does."
Hedman on Doughty: "He won the Norris Trophy last year for a reason. He's pretty much like Keith, plays every situation, plays close to 30 minutes a night and never seems to fatigue. That's very impressive, a tough position to play minutes and have a high level at all times."