When Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman re-signed defenseman Victor Hedman to a five-year contract last November, he did so with a keen eye toward the future.
Yzerman no doubt believes Hedman, the second pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, will at some point become the foundation of the organization's defense.
While that may be true, Hedman has had to deal with his share of growing pains in his initial three seasons with the Lightning. In 2011-12, for example, he missed 13 games with a concussion and an additional eight at various times because of an upper-body injury.
His confidence never wavered, however. It's that very reason why having a healthy and determined Hedman in the lineup this season would certainly go a long way in aiding Tampa Bay's quest to return to prominence in the Southeast Division.
Defense - TBL
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 23
SOG: 82 | +/-: -9
"He's one of those guys you want to hurry up and blossom," coach Guy Boucher told Damian Cristodero of the Tampa Bay Times. "He's going one step at a time, but he's climbing the ladder and looking really good."
The thing is, Hedman needn't make major offensive contributions; rather, just maintain a strong, consistent game that the coaching staff has come to expect from the 6-foot-6, 229-pound Swede.
Hedman played in 61 games last season and produced five goals and 23 assists while establishing a career-high in average ice time (23:05). He was second only to defenseman Eric Brewer (23:16) in ice time on the team.
Boucher told the team's website that the 21-year-old defenseman, in some ways, reminds him of Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. He said he expects Hedman to gain even more confidence, physically, as he gets older.
"The one thing about Victor, he's a very dedicated athlete," Boucher said. "He's a horse in the gym. He never misses anything. He's always first on the ice and last out. I would certainly bet on [Hedman] to keep getting better."
Hedman did exhibit a gritty side to his game last season, ranking first among Tampa Bay defenders with 65 penalty minutes, third on the team with 127 blocked shots, and ninth on the club with a career-high 96 hits. He also ranked fifth with 33 takeaways.
"At the end of [2010-11], he was in the right places and he was rubbing guys out," Boucher said. "Right now, he's hitting guys, finishing checks and he's everywhere on the ice where the opponents are. He's been a consistent threat defensively."
During Tampa Bay's remarkable run to the Eastern Conference Finals two seasons ago, Hedman impressed with his play in the postseason. In the final 14 games of the run against Pittsburgh, Washington and Boston, he had five assists and a plus-4 rating.
While the injuries he received probably kept him from improving even more last season, he still managed to earn big minutes against top lines while playing on both the power play and the penalty killing units.
"I'm trying to become a good two-way player and be a force on the ice," Hedman said. "It's a process. They believe in me and I believe I can be a difference maker. If the play is there, I'm going to jump in and try to make a play. If you look at the best defensemen in the League, they're consistent on both ends of the ice and that's what I want to be."
If Hedman becomes that type of player in 2012-13, the foundation may be realized much sooner than later.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer