JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — You can argue no player's star rose higher during the Stanley Cup playoffs than Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
"I hit my peak," he said.
On the biggest stage, Hedman, 24, was, as captain Steven Stamkos says, "an absolute beast." The 6-foot-6 Swede dominated at both ends of the ice, and the hockey world was talking about him. So much so, that if the Lightning had beaten the Blackhawks and hoisted the Cup, Hedman likely would have won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP.
How does Hedman top that?
"I picked him for the Norris (Trophy) this year," Stamkos said of the award given to the NHL's top defenseman. "No pressure."
Stamkos isn't the only one. Hedman, back under the national spotlight Tuesday for an NBCSN exhibition against the Penguins, should be vaulted by his playoff exposure into Norris conversation all season.
"I think he has those qualities to win it," Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time Norris winner, said in a phone interview from Sweden. "You gain that experience that he gained, a lot of more people watching up close. When you have that kind of season you had last year, it's going to be interesting to watch him this year. He's got more knowledge, players and fans know what he can do. It'll be the next step in his career to play at a high level consistently."
The Senators' Erik Karlsson, another Swede who won his second Norris Trophy last season, said Hedman's place among the league's elite is not a revelation.
"He's always been there," Karlsson said. "Everybody has known who he was and who he is and what he can do. He's always been a really solid player, but I think he really stuck out in the playoffs and I think he really showed he can play all the elements of his game."
Hedman just needs to stay healthy. He suffered what the Lightning called a "minor" unspecified injury in the second period of Tuesday's preseason game against the Penguins and didn't return. Center Brian Boyle filled in for Hedman on defense in the third period. Hedman is considered day-to-day with Cooper saying he was taken out as a precaution.
The Lightning has two exhibitions left before opening the regular season Oct. 8 against the Flyers, so Hedman has more than a week to heal.
Hedman might have warranted Norris consideration last season had he not fractured a finger in mid October, sidelining him for six weeks.
The No. 2 overall pick in 2009 offers the complete package of speed, skills and size. But while stardom came quicker for the likes of Karlsson and the Kings' Drew Doughty, Hedman's previous had been steadier and under the radar. Hedman came into his own after reaching the 300-game plateau in 2013-14, tallying career highs in goals (13) and points (42).
"I was fortunate enough to come into an organization that believed in me and believed it would take some time," he said.
Not coincidentally, 2013-14 was coach Jon Cooper's first full season, and his system, which lets defensemen join the rush, is perfect for Hedman's dynamic, two-way game. The fact Hedman often played with fellow Swede Anton Stralman, an extremely steady partner, sparked even more confidence.
"They gave me a lot of freedom in my game," he said. "The biggest thing for me was to develop the two-way game and be reliable on both ends of the ice. I want to play in every situation."
Hedman does, including the power play. He is not a bruising, physical force like Zdeno Chara. His game more resembles Lidstrom or Karlsson, Hedman utilizing his savvy positioning/length, his poise with the puck and all-world skating ability. Associate coach Rick Bowness, in his fourth decade in the NHL, said he has never seen a 6-foot-6 player move like Hedman,
But Hedman said his most significant improvements last season came in his own zone, being more efficient and effective and playing more (averaging more than 25 minutes in the playoffs). Against opponents' top lines, including shutting down Chicago stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Hedman ranked second in the NHL with a plus-11 rating in the playoffs.
"He's becoming one of the more polished gems in the league," NBCSN analyst Pierre McGuire said.
Hedman's 13 assists included some of the most pivotal goals, from Tyler Johnson's overtime winner Game 4 in Detroit, to Johnson's buzzer-beater in Game 3 against Montreal and Cedric Paquette's winner in Game 3 of the final. Don't forget Hedman's 120-foot slap pass on Ryan Callahan's goal earlier in that game.
"I took my game to another level," Hedman said. "It was such a fun time. Everything is at stake, on the big stage, that's the only hockey that's going on. I know a lot of people are watching, it's a phenomenal experience, something that you want to do again."
As Stamkos said, no pressure.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.