Sunday, April 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Victor Hedman puts his stamp on Lightning playoff run

TAMPA

The time has arrived. He has arrived.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is no longer the kid with potential. He's no longer a future star.

When it comes to Hedman, it isn't about "someday'' or "eventually'' or "down the road.''

Hedman is a star. Right now.

It's happening right before our very eyes.

If you've watched the Lightning this season — if you've watched the Lightning in these playoffs — you've seen the maturation and evolution of a hockey player. From boy to man. From prospect to standout.

Victor Hedman has arrived.

"He's an unbelievable defenseman,'' teammate and forward Alex Killorn said. "Not just on our team, but throughout the league, he's one of the best defensemen in the league.''

He can play offense. He has a goal and seven assists in the playoffs.

He can play defense. His plus-8 postseason rating is tops on the Lightning and was tied for best in the league heading into Tuesday night.

He's as dangerous in the offensive zone as he is steady in his own. He plays on the power play and penalty kill. He's always out there in the crucial moments when the Lightning desperately needs a goal and when it absolutely has to prevent one.

And his worth is just as valuable in the locker room as it is on the ice.

What can't he do?

"He's the kind of defenseman that every team needs and wants,'' Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat said. "He has a big body. He can skate. He's just an overall great player, and it's good to have him on the team. He's a true leader.''

Let's go ahead and use the word: elite. Hedman has become an elite defenseman. And that's not a word you throw around lightly when talking about NHL defensemen. Elite is reserved for those always mentioned as candidates for the Norris Trophy, the award handed out to the NHL's top defenseman.

"I don't think you get to this part of the season without having a top, elite-tier defenseman,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "And he is that for us.''

We've all been waiting for this day. Taken second overall in the 2009 draft, Hedman was supposed to be exactly what he has become. But when it didn't happen right away, when he wasn't Bobby Orr in his first game, he became a target of some impatient fans.

Critics took a caveman approach to Hedman. They looked at his 6-foot-6 frame and immediately proclaimed him a bust because he didn't hit enough. That is not his game. It has never been and never will be. Even today, many don't realize that Hedman's game isn't built on driving opponents through the boards.

He is a steady, if not spectacular, defender and a skilled offensive threat who is showing just how skilled in these playoffs.

"Stepping on to the ice, I feel confident in my game,'' Hedman said. "I feel confident on both ends of the ice. That's kind of the way I want to play. Last year was a big step in the right direction, and I've tried to build on that this year.''

Hedman's regular season was shortened in part by a broken finger. But the 59 games he played showed he had climbed to a higher level. He had 10 goals and 28 assists, and was a career-best plus-12 despite often being assigned to the other team's best offensive players.

In the playoffs, Hedman has gained the attention of the hockey world, earning rave reviews on national broadcasts.

Now here's the part that still catches you by surprise. He's only 24 years old.

"I've felt great,'' Hedman said. "I have that jump in my legs. I feel fresh. I feel like I can play my game. And play a lot of minutes. The game feels good.''

It looks good.

Hedman's uncanny vision on the ice has led to several spectacular passes that led to highlight goals. He set up Tyler Johnson's overtime winner against the Red Wings in a pivotal Game 4 victory in the first round. Hedman had the brilliant assist on Johnson's goal with 1.1 seconds left in the Game 3 victory in the second round against the Canadiens. And he helped ice Monday's Game 2 Eastern Conference final victory at New York with a perfect pass to Killorn. Pedestrian defensemen do not make such passes.

"If I look at our year, obviously (goalie Ben) Bishop is the guy that anchors us back there,'' Cooper said. "But when Hedman is going, our team is going. Sometimes when he's not, our team isn't. And that says a lot about a player that he has that much effect on our team.''

This is the second time Hedman has been this deep in the playoffs. The first time was 2011, when the Lightning lost Game 7 of the conference final to Boston. But that was not the same Hedman.

"Huge difference,'' Hedman said. "That was only my second year in the league and (I was) only 20 years old. I really didn't know what to expect. Now I feel like I've been here for a long time.''

Then he was just a player. Now he is a star. Now he is a leader.

"I want to take responsibility; I want to be a leader,'' Hedman said. "I want to be a difference-maker on the ice. Coming into these playoffs that's kind of the way I approach it and approach the game.''

The approach is working. Hedman is proving that.

Right here. Right now.

     
   
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