TAMPA — Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde believes there are only a few difference-makers in today’s National Hockey League.
More than 640 players take the ice each season, but only a small number of them can turn a game on its head and make an impact. It’s one of the reasons Lalonde feels fortunate he has defenseman Victor Hedman on his side.
“There’s very few game changers in the game and he’s one of those small percent guys,” Lalonde said. “There’s times he can take games over both offensively and defensively.”
With every year that passes, Hedman shows what it takes to be one of the greats. He continued to prove that this season, recording a career year (20 goals and 65 assists for 85 points) coming off meniscus surgery after the team won its second straight Stanley Cup.
On Monday, his efforts were rewarded as he was named one of three Norris Trophy finalists alongside Nashville’s Roman Josi and Colorado’s Cale Makar.
The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association in an effort to determine “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position.” The trophy will be awarded between Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Hedman has been in the running for the honor six straight years (winning it in 2017-18 and placing third in the other seasons).
The streak ties former Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom (1997-98 through 2002-03) as the longest achieved. The Hall of Famer won the trophy seven times during his 20-year career.
“You certainly don’t take it for granted,” said Hedman, who turned 31 in December. “Especially with all of the unbelievable defensemen there are in this league. I’ve tried to do as good as I can, obviously, going into every season and getting nominated is one thing, but you also want to try and win it, too.
“At the end of the day, getting nominated is a great honor, and reaching it after 30 is obviously great, but I feel like I’m getting better with age and hopefully that continues.”
Entering Tuesday night’s Game 5 at Toronto, Hedman has six points through four games, second in the league among defensemen behind Makar (10). In Game 2, Hedman recorded a career-best four-point outing en route to the team’s 5-3 win.
Hedman’s 6-foot-6 frame makes him one of the biggest threats on the ice, and his skating abilities only make it harder to get around the 241-pounder, who makes a habit of using his length to cut off lanes and close gaps.
“You throw in his smarts and his instincts, he makes difficult things look easy,” fellow defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “He knows where pretty much everybody is on the ice at all times so he can 99 percent of the time make the right play. ... Just having that confidence to play with that consistency and that swagger night in and night out, too, is what makes him a special player.”
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In Hedman’s 13 years with the Lightning, he is fourth all-time in games played (898), fourth in assists (469) and fifth in points (603).
In 2019-20, he stepped up his game to help the team hoist the first of two Cups while captain, and good friend, Steven Stamkos was unavailable to play all but one game in the Canada bubble. Hedman recorded 10 goals and 12 assists during that run, which also led to a Conn Smythe playoff MVP nod.
He continued his impeccable play in last year’s shortened season, which saw him grab the third-most points scored by a defenseman (45) and led to an 18-point (16 assists) playoff performance.
“Everyone knew he would be a player, but once he gained that notoriety of a Norris Trophy winner, I think you realize like, ‘Wow, he can be in that conversation every year when he just plays his game,’” said Dan Girardi, who paired with Hedman during his time with the Lightning before retiring at the end of 2018-19.
“...Every year, he’s been that harder, stronger, defensively, too, and using his big frame down there … and shutting down top guys. He’s another guy you really don’t want to match up against. He’s another strong guy that can outskate you. He’s the one-two punch the Lightning have.”
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