TAMPA — Victor Hedman has played five NHL seasons, and had three coaches, since arriving from Sweden as a teenager, and his resume includes appearing in an Eastern Conference final.
But though he celebrated his 23rd birthday last week, Hedman is still the Lightning's youngest defenseman.
"It's pretty amazing," he said. "It's my fifth season, came over when I was 18. It flies by, it feels like. But it's a lot of fun, too."
Coach Jon Cooper said you'd never guess Hedman is the baby of the blue line because he doesn't act like it on the ice, where he is the team's top defenseman, a workhorse and a leader to whom even older players gravitate.
But Hedman's age puts in perspective how long it can take for defensemen to develop, and the No. 2 overall pick by the Lightning in the 2009 draft is emerging this season as the elite player many envisioned.
"He's taken a big-time step," Cooper said. "When your abilities and how you play and how you conduct yourself transcend your age, that's kind of the way Victor has been, especially this year.
"I think this was a little bit of his coming-out party. He's been taking command of the game out there, and it's been a lot of fun to watch, and I'm really happy for him."
Hedman, at 6 feet 6 and 233 pounds, has always had the physical tools to succeed at this level: a rare blend of size, skills and skating ability. But as former Lightning and current Canucks coach John Tortorella used to say, it typically takes a defenseman around 300 NHL games to find his way in the league.
Veteran defenseman Eric Brewer (34 and in his 15th NHL season) thinks it takes at least 200 games to "really understand what's going on," considering the game is constantly changing.
And Hedman, who has played a combined 307 games between regular season and playoffs, believes he is right on schedule.
"You know, it's going to take time," Hedman said. "For other guys that go faster, if you look at (Kings defenseman) Drew Doughty, (Senators defenseman) Erik Karlsson and those guys, they're way better before 300 games."
Doughty, 24, and Karlsson, 23, were all-stars before 300 games, and Karlsson was a Norris Trophy (best defenseman) nominee.
"But you know you have to stick with it and don't lose the belief in yourself that you can do it," Hedman said. "That's kind of the mentality I had the whole time, and that's what the coaching staff has told me to do, 'Keep pushing yourself and keep trying to get better.' "
Hedman said his two-way game has taken a jump this season, with coaches allowing him the freedom to jump into the rush and affect the game offensively. Hedman already has a career-high seven goals in 31 games, with five of his 20 points coming in the past three games. He also has been a staple on the power play and penalty kill, logging between 20-25 minutes a game.
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"Clearly, he's an elite player," Brewer said. "When you can skate like that and cover that much ice, it's such a good thing."
Former Flames general manager Craig Button, an NHL Network analyst, said expectations for Hedman were skewed because he was drafted between offensively gifted centers John Tavares of the Islanders and Matt Duchene of the Avalanche. But Button said Hedman has progressed each year, even while playing on some struggling Lightning teams.
"Hedman is a unique defenseman," Button said. "Is he going to put up 60 points? No. But when you look at the Eastern Conference and the big centermen they have, the (Alex) Ovechkins, you're going to need defensemen that can match up with the (Evgeni) Malkins and (Sidney) Crosbys and Eric Staals. And I think that's what Victor Hedman offers you."
For Hedman, there's still room to grow.
"So far, so good," Hedman said. "But I can't be satisfied. I always have to battle hard to get there."