Victor Hedman is so confident in his abilities on defense, he says, that he feels he is ready to play a bigger role on the Lightning blue line in case of an emergency.
Three games into the regular season, Tampa Bay has just that.
The Lightning will be without defenseman Mattias Ohlund for up to a month, general manager Steve Yzerman confirmed on Monday, after inflammation in the knees of the imposing Swede was found to be more serious than initially thought. Ohlund, who started the season on Injured Reserve, had arthroscopic surgery on both knees Tuesday to clean up some loose cartilage that began to cause him discomfort towards the end of the team’s preseason schedule.
With now seven healthy defensemen on the 23-man roster, is it unknown whether or not Yzerman expects to test the market in order to fill the void left behind by Ohlund’s absence. There is a possibility the Lightning will work with what they have, even if that means mixing and matching defensive pairings in order to get the right fit.
“It hurts because what it does is put Victor Hedman against the top lines,” head coach Guy Boucher told The Tampa Tribune. “And it’s not that he can’t do the job, but it asks a lot of other guys who are not in the spots they are normally in.”
Hedman, however, didn’t flinch at the thought of stepping up, which loosely translates to playing premium minutes on the top pairing with Eric Brewer.
“I’m up for the challenge,” Hedman said. “I’ve said before that I want to be more of a force out on the ice and make plays. My goal is to be a difference maker.”
He is going to have to be.
So far, all signs make it appear that the transition should be an easy one. Earning more ice time is nothing new to the second overall pick in the 2009 draft after he logged an average of 22:16 during last season’s playoffs. He also ranked third with 48 blocked shots, and his 13 takeaways were tied for second in the league. During the team’s training camp, Boucher even voiced how pleased he was with how much Hedman had matured since being thrown right into NHL action as an 18-year-old two seasons ago.
The added responsibilities and increased accountability, though, do not fall solely on Hedman, as the situation also presents an opportunity for more ice time to be had by Matt Gilroy, Bruno Gervais and Marc-Andre Bergeron.
Pavel Kubina and Brett Clark, who after Brewer and Hedman, are two of the team’s next three defensemen logging the most minutes per game, will be called on too to do more than just eat up big chunks of ice time.
“Obviously having him out means a lot since he’s such a big part of our team,” Kubina said. “Now some of our guys, including myself, are going to be challenged by playing in situations we never have before.”
Included in those responsibilities are killing penalties, and as Boucher echoed, playing against teams’ top lines - a role Kubina said would require being more physical on the blue line. Clark also added that Ohlund’s loss goes far beyond just what he brings on the ice each night.
“He’s a great leader on the bench and in the locker room,” Clark said. “He provides that veteran presence and comes into each game with that leadership mentality.”
Playing without key components for extended periods of time is nothing new for the Lightning. Last season, the team went without captain Vincent Lecavalier for 15 games and endured a stretch of 21 more without top-six forward Ryan Malone in the lineup. Ohlund himself missed a total of 10 games.
Still, the situation facing the Lightning at such an early juncture in the regular season is a difficult one.
“We all know what we have to do,” Clark added. “We all have to raise the bar a little bit in our own games to boost the overall performance of the team. It’s tough, but these are the moments that make you come together as a team.”
Now, more than ever, they’ll have to do that too.