Victor Hedman emerges as a Lightning star

TAMPA

Denis Potvin is a Hall of Fame defenseman, one of the best to ever pull on a pair of skates. So he knows the game. He knows defense. He knows what a good defenseman looks like.

The way he sees it, it takes about 300 NHL games for a defenseman to figure out how to play the position. About 300 for the game to slow down and get easier.

It takes 300 games to become a star.

"Now,'' Potvin said, "look at how many games Victor Hedman has played.''

Well isn't this something? Tonight in Toronto, Hedman plays in his 304th NHL game.

In case you hadn't noticed, Hedman has become a star.

And it has happened rather recently even if it has taken years to arrive here.

The 23-year-old, who, remarkably, is still the youngest defenseman on the team, has registered back-to-back three-assist games and already has set career marks for goals and points with 30 games to play. His 10 goals were tied for sixth in the NHL among defensemen entering Monday and his 32 points have him in the top 10 among blue-liners.

Crunch all the numbers, watch him play and it breaks down like this: Victor Hedman is one of the best defensemen in the NHL.

"Heddy has just come into his own,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's a tribute to him that he has weathered his ups and downs. He has weathered his critics.''

There were plenty of those in Hedman's first four seasons in the NHL. You tend to collect your share when you're the second overall pick and have the poor taste to not look like the next Bobby Orr right off the plane.

"That weighs on you,'' Cooper said.

Hedman heard the grumbling earlier in his career. No one called him a bust, but there were those who wondered if he was worth the second pick back in 2009.

He showed flashes of stardom, but eventually, fans grow tired of potential. They start looking back at the draft and lamenting the players the Lightning could have had.

"When you're drafted that high,'' Hedman said, "expectations are sky-high.''

Never mind that he was a mere 18 years old when he came over from his native Sweden. He was in a new country, a new culture, a new league — the best in the world. His man-sized frame (6 feet 6, 225 pounds) fooled us. It made us forget that he was still just a kid.

So we watched him and we thought he was okay defensively and not bad offensively and, overall, decent.

But when you're talking about the second pick, you expect more than okay and not bad and decent.

Even Hedman grew impatient.

"From the beginning, it has been tough,'' Hedman said. "This is my fifth season. It has taken a longer time than I wanted it to take.''

When Cooper arrived near the end of last season, his first order of business with Hedman was to take some things off of his plate. Actually, Cooper took back the whole plate.

"We spoon-fed him everything he needed,'' Cooper said.

For the first 20 games of this season, Hedman didn't play on the power play. His minutes were limited. Expectations were lowered.

Slowly, but steadily, Hedman's play improved. Shift by shift, game by game. Soon, the flashes of greatness turned into a steady light. Bouts of inconsistency disappeared. Pretty soon, especially of late, Hedman became the best player on the ice.

Every game. All game.

"Now,'' Cooper said, "you can't take him off the ice.''

Is he a better player now?

"He's playing better, I guess that's the way to put it,'' Cooper said.

Cooper isn't taking credit for Hedman's development, but said the Lightning's system fits Hedman's game.

"And we're catching him at 23 years old with 300 games under his belt,'' Cooper said, "and he has slowly figured out the league.''

The league, however, is still figuring out Hedman. Last month, Hedman was, like the rest of us, stunned when he was not named to the Swedish Olympic team.

"When I found out I wasn't making the team, it was very disappointing, but you have to put that behind you and focus on this team,'' Hedman said. "This is where you want to succeed the most.''

So he's not using the snub as motivation?

"Not anymore,'' Hedman said.

And, see, this is the thing about Hedman. He doesn't pout. He doesn't make excuses. He doesn't point fingers or feel sorry for himself.

Even when his critics griped that he can't do this or should be better at that, Hedman ignored them and just kept working harder. When Sweden left him off the Olympic team, he moved on.

He could look back, but what's the point?

"I'm having my best season so far in my career, but I can't be satisfied,'' Hedman said. "Things have been going well, but I have to keep working on my game and try to get better everyday. It sounds like a cliche, but that's how it has to be.''

And, most of all, he needed to put in time — about 300 games — to become a star.

"Maybe for me, that time is now,'' Hedman said.

There's no maybe about it.

Victor Hedman emerges as a Lightning star 01/27/14 [Last modified: Monday, January 27, 2014 9:25pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...