NEW YORK — When Victor Hedman returned to the lineup after missing 13 games because of a concussion, he did not plan to play it safe.
The Lightning defenseman was going to hit and be hit, get into traffic, battle for pucks, prove to himself right away he was 100 percent healthy.
"I told myself to go out and play hard," Hedman said. "You'd rather be a little too aggressive at the beginning, try to make some hits and play the way I can."
It has been only four games, but he might have even taken a step forward. In a season that could be a nonplayoff disappointment for Tampa Bay, Hedman, 21, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2009 draft, is laying the groundwork for future success.
"I think this is just the beginning," coach Guy Boucher said. "I really do."
Boucher has called Hedman "terrific" and "a machine."
And after Hedman had an assist, five shots, three hits and five blocks in Saturday's 6-3 win over Florida, Boucher said, "He's turning into a monster. I love it."
"He's been great," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "He's just a huge presence out there. I can't imagine playing against him with that long stick and long reach. He's always in your face."
Hedman's numbers are not overpowering. He has three goals and eight points in 36 games and is minus-12, partly the result of a seasonlong process of understanding when it is better to hold his ground than jump into the offensive flow.
But the 6-foot-6, 229-pounder, who in November signed a five-year, $20 million contract extension through 2016-17, averages 22:20 of ice time, plays against the top lines and plays on the power play and penalty kill.
And whether it is the fresh legs gained from 13 games on the sideline after sustaining the concussion Dec. 27 against the Flyers or the perspective culled from watching from the press box, Hedman seems more engaged, more poised with the puck.
Boucher called the gap Hedman keeps between himself and onrushing opponents perfect, which will be important tonight against the hard-charging Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Since returning, Hedman has a goal, two points, 10 shots, 11 hits and nine blocks.
"The break came at such a good time for me to get back in shape," Hedman said. "It's still 13 games I missed, but from watching the games, in your head you try to pretend you're out there and visualize what you should do in those types of situations."
The most telling result might have occurred against Florida. Hedman, with the puck at the left point, held it for a second longer, which allowed teammate Steve Downie to pop open on the right side of the slot. A pass to Downie, followed by Downie's pass to Steven Stamkos, and Tampa Bay had a goal.
"I feel confident I can make plays on both ends of the ice," Hedman said. "You want to keep adding on to become a very good, an awesome, two-way player."
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"He's one of those guys you want to hurry up and blossom, and that's happening," Boucher said. "He's going one step at a time, but he's climbing that ladder and looking really good."