Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: With Lightning, Victor Hedman's stature only grows

NEW YORK — Monday afternoon at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman zooms behind his own net, scoops up the puck and makes a mad dash up the ice.

A zig. A zag. He has gone 200 feet without even tapping his brakes and, in what seems like the blink of an eye, is now darting into the one place most defensemen don't go. It's the one place most defensemen aren't supposed to go: right smack-dab in front of the opposing goal.

This is practice, but even here you can't help but be mesmerized by Hedman's breathtaking skills. Anyway, it might as well be a game. This end-to-end rush is something Hedman likely will do tonight when the Lightning plays the Islanders in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series.

There's nothing Hedman can't do. There's nothing that he's not allowed to do.

"If you're going on leash length," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "his might be unlimited."

Because of that freedom, Hedman has become one of the most impactful players in the NHL. He is the Lightning's conductor. He dictates the style, the pace, the tone of every game. As a result, Hedman's play often has a direct correlation to the Lightning's result.

When Hedman plays well, the Lightning usually wins. If he doesn't, it often struggles. Considering what the Lightning has done over the past two postseasons, Hedman has played well most nights.

Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs, which have become Hedman's personal stage. Know how some players shrink in the postseason? Hedman is just the opposite. He is even better in the playoffs than he is in the regular season.

"I try not to change too much," Hedman said. "I try to play the same way and play the way you want to play in the playoffs. Regular season is like a dress rehearsal for the playoffs. If you play with good habits in the regular season, you bring it into the playoffs."

And he has the same free rein from the coaches.

"They let me play my game," Hedman said. "To have the confidence to do that is something that I really appreciate. I want to play my game. That's what I did so well and that's why I was drafted so high."

Hedman was a No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft and you would think it's a no-brainer to let him play like a second overall pick. Far too often in the NHL, coaches take a kid with raw skills and try to mold him into what they want instead of letting him become who he should be.

That means never taking chances, never trying too much, always making the safe play.

That hasn't happened with Hedman. The Lightning, Cooper and associate coach Rick Bowness, who runs the defense, have given Hedman the allowance to play how he wants, even if that means the occasional firecracker that blows up in their faces.

"His positives far outweigh his negatives," Cooper said.

Besides, Hedman is so good that even when he does goof up, he has the speed to recover.

"If you've got one of those type of guys, you want to let them go," Cooper said. "He's a really big part of our offensive attack. Not only can he pass the puck up ice, but he can skate it up ice. So we try to take advantage of that as much as possible."

The key phrase there: As much as possible.

With defenseman Anton Stralman out with a fractured leg, Hedman has become a workhorse, averaging 27 minutes per game. That's nearly half the game and four minutes more than he played during the regular season. His worst game of these playoffs was probably Game 5's 1-0 series-clinching victory against the Red Wings in the first round and he still played more than 25 minutes despite suffering from flu-like symptoms.

Yet, the increased ice time doesn't appear to have a negative impact on his game. He rarely cruises through a shift. He doesn't go through the motions. Hedman said he wants all of his minutes to be quality minutes.

"There are special players in the league that need to come for 20 or 30 seconds and they can go right back out there," Cooper said. "And he's one of those guys. … There are not many of them out there, but Heddy is in that group. He's efficient in his game. He's a gazelle out there. It looks like he is covering so much space, but he's efficient at it and that's what allows him to play so much."

Blessed with uncanny speed and shiftiness for a man his size (6 feet 6, 230 pounds), the 25-year-old Hedman continues his ascent among top NHL defensemen. He might not be quite at the level of, say, Chicago's Duncan Keith or Los Angeles' Drew Doughty or Ottawa's Erik Karlsson, but he's not far behind. He also hasn't reached the very top of his game. And, consider this: of all those defensemen, Hedman is the only one whose team is still alive.

Does he have any flaws? Well, sometimes he tries to do too much, particularly when his emotions get the better of him. Despite his low-key manner and politeness off the ice, he has a temper on the ice, particularly when it comes to his own game.

"You have to be hard on yourself," Hedman said. "If you want to keep improving and you want to be a better players, you've got to be hard on yourself."

When he is, Cooper said he pulls Hedman aside and tells him, "Take a breath … you're doing unreal, kid."

"I can get emotional on the bench and on the ice, but I think I'm way better now than I was a few years back," Hedman said. "You learn. And last year was a big experience for everyone. … I think I've calmed down a little bit and focused on what I can control. If I don't do that, I think my game goes down a little bit."

It's hard to find a game when Hedman's play slips even a little bit. He has become a beast on the ice.

All over the ice.

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