Victor Hedman raced back on defense, broke up a Buffalo scoring chance, got to the puck first along the boards and slalomed past another Sabres player near center ice. When the defense gave him room, the big Swede kept going and snapped a shot upstairs, short side on Ryan Miller.
It was just a glimpse of the immense talent of Hedman, with a committed effort that displayed his speed and skill. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman had only been 19-years-old for 19 days that day.
It was no surprise that a player so young, playing in what most experts say is the position in hockey that takes the longest time to develop, that he was going to have his ups and down this season. There were way more positives than negatives for the teenager through 74 games.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund said. “Being his rookie season and coming from Europe, he’s had a very good year. But he can improve on everything just by experience.
“He’s got a drive that you don’t see in a lot of players. He really wants to get better every time he steps on the ice. Hopefully, that’s one of the reasons he’s going to be a special player.”
Hedman had a solid plus/minus rating of plus-2 through Jan. 1, but went through a tough stretch at the start of 2010 before being a healthy scratch on Jan. 21 against Toronto.
One thing the coaching staff liked the most about Hedman was when he made mistakes, he wanted to get right back out there. He never stopped battling, never pouted, and always practiced hard. His rebound ability showed when he was a plus-11 over his next nine games after sitting out.
“I definitely saw the game was raised to another level in the second half of the season,” Hedman said. “Every game becomes tougher, more physical, more competitive than the first half.”
Hedman, who is likely to be selected by Team Sweden for the World Championships next month in Germany, finished with four goals, 20 points and a minus-3 overall. He was fourth on the team in average ice time (20:50) and had 97 blocks (fourth on the team).
After playing less than 50 games the last two seasons in Sweden, Hedman said he was little more tired, but it didn’t affect his ability to play a lot of minutes. The mental fatigue was a little more noticeable to him.
“When you don’t play the way you want to play, that hurts your confidence,” Hedman said. “But that’s something I will learn from and take into next season. I just have to be calmer after I make a mistake and try to be patient out there, get the puck out and play simple.”
The balance between being aggressive and patient is something that takes time for the best of young defenseman. Coaches don’t want to take that ability away from a player who has speed and can jump up in the attack, but the decision-making is magnified at the NHL level.
When a forward makes a mistake, the puck is often 180 feet from goal. When a defenseman is out of position, it is often a one-on-one with his goalie. Ohlund said it takes time to adjust to the smaller rinks in North America as well.
“On the bigger rinks, if you are a defenseman and you pinch up and make a wrong read, because of the larger ice surface, usually you have time to get back or a forward is able to get back for you,” Ohlund said. “Here, you make a mistake and it’s an odd-man rush the other way.
“He wants to be a difference-maker. He’ll learn that some shifts you have to patient. You just have to make the play that is there and the next shift you can make more of an impact.”
Hedman said he will work even harder this summer and add suggestions from Lightning Strength and Conditioning Coach Chuck Lobe to his program. He can get stronger, which will help him around the net, and improve on his hit total (59 this season). Ohlund has no doubts Lightning fans will see more physical presence from Hedman in the future.
“He’s 19, 6-6, 225-230,” Ohlund said. “In two or three years, as he slowly builds up, he is going to be a beast out there physically. And, he has a little mean streak as well.”
It is all a process for defensemen in the NHL. Hedman still had the seventh most points among rookie defensemen and was second among all rookies in ice time and blocks.
Hedman has learned a lot from his talks with Ohlund, a fellow Swede, but he has been an eager student with everyone.
“All my teammates helped me along,” Hedman said. “It was great just to watch how they do things on and off the ice. You learn every day. If you do that, you are going to have a different attitude about what you have to do to make the team next year, contribute more than I did in the second half and show the fans that I’m better than I was this year.”