Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher is convinced defenseman Victor Hedman has all the tools required to excel in the NHL.
The only sticking point for the 6-foot-6, 229-pound blueliner is knowing when to open that toolbox.
"When he starts trying to become offensive, it ain't working," Boucher said. "He's trying too much and he's getting himself out of position. I've seen this before where a defenseman or forward is drafted high in the first round … there's a lot of pressure and they put way too much pressure on themselves because they're drafted high. But if you stay within your limits, you'll do fine.
From the day he was chosen by the Lightning with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, Hedman had been tabbed the best defensive prospect from Sweden since, well, Nicklas Lidstrom in 1989. Truth is, those are unfair comparisons and Hedman would be the first to tell you.
But there's no denying the untapped potential hidden beneath the stern frame and boyish grin on Hedman, in his second full season with the Lightning.
"Back home, I was always the defensive guy who was going to produce points," Hedman told NHL.com.
In two seasons playing for MODO Ornskoldsvik in the Swedish Elite League prior to joining the Lightning in 2009-10, Hedman racked up 9 goals, 25 points, 96 penalty minutes and a plus-22 rating in 82 games.
"In the NHL, I adjusted to a more defensive style, killing a lot of penalties," he said. "You get time on the power play too, but I'm thinking defense-first all the time and that's the way I have to approach it. I'm only 20 years old, so I have to learn the game and learn to play at both ends of the ice. Offense is going to come out of good defense, so that's where I have to start."
In his rookie season with the Lightning, Hedman had 4 goals, 20 points, 90 shots, 79 penalty minutes and a minus-3 rating in 74 games. This season, he led all Tampa defensemen with 23 assists, was second in points (26) and fourth with a plus-3 rating. Hedman has also averaged 91 blocked shots in two seasons.
It's been a tough grind, but Hedman admits he continues to learn on the fly and is more comfortable now than when he first broke into the League.
"I think every young D-man wants to be involved and you hear a lot about how a defender can make the difference in the game or make a play that makes the difference, but the fact is you just don't get as many chances here as you do in other leagues," Lightning veteran blueliner Eric Brewer told NHL.com. "The chances you get are less, they might be of more quality, but you have to be more patient with it because the game happens so quickly and things turn on a dime. Overseas, the better players can probably recover better; here, you don't have as much recoverability. But for the short time I've been here, Victor's been really good."
One player who certainly has helped Hedman through his growing pains has been countryman Mattias Ohlund, who may not be the offensive dynamo he once was but still plays one heck of a defensive game as evidenced by his 135 hits and 136 blocked shots in 2010-11.
"Sometimes people forget how young he is," Ohlund told NHL.com. "He's only in his second year after playing in Europe all his life. He's come a long way and continues to get better each and every day when you watch him."
Ohlund, 34, was signed to a seven-year deal less than one month after the Lightning drafted Hedman. It probably wasn't a coincidence either.
"He helps me a lot both on and off the ice … he's been my mentor and he's a guy I looked up to growing up," Hedman said. "He was one of those players you wanted to play like so it's fun to be playing with him, getting to know him and being good friends with him. I try to listen to what he says; there are small details in the game you have to pick up."
Ohlund is excited he'll be a part of Hedman's maturation the next few years.
"With all the tools and skills he has, the No. 1 thing he'll have to learn is when he could use those skills, when to play it safe and when to live another day and wait for the next shift," Ohlund said. "But he's come a long way from a year ago and it's been fun to watch him."
Hedman's defensive partner, Pavel Kubina, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons, feels experience is the only tonic for Hedman. In fact, he believes Hedman is a future NHL All-Star.
"You got to make the read when it's good to go or when you shouldn't go, and he's been much better on it," Kubina said. "I think every year, he'll get better and he has a great future. I think he has the potential to be an All-Star in this League.
"It takes time. He has to be smart about it, though. He's an offensive guy, but it's not like he's trying to do something that's not in him. He's got great skills and he has to use them, but in this League it's a fast-paced game so you have to know when to go and when you shouldn't. He's learning quickly, though."
Said Brewer: "It's just a matter of experience for him and understanding where he can go with his game and feeling comfortable with the plays he can make. He can make plays that other guys won't make or won't be able to make just because he has that ability."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer