NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman can still pinpoint the moment his season, and perhaps his career, turned.
Eight games into the 2013-14 season, his fifth in the NHL, the second pick in the 2009 NHL Draft struggled through one of the worst performances of his career in a 5-0 loss to the Boston Bruins.
"That Boston game was a tough game, but after that I felt like I took off," Hedman said. "That was a big turning point."
After posting a career-worst minus-5 rating against Boston, Hedman responded with two points in a 6-5 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks, including his first goal in 41 games. It was the turning point in a career year that established him as a top NHL defenseman. But he still feels he has something to prove.
"Last year was a big step forward, but it's only one season," Hedman said. "I want to be consistent playing at that level. I want to keep that going."
For years, the hockey world had been waiting for this breakout season from Hedman, who set career highs in goals (13), assists (42), points (55), plus-minus (plus-5), shots (170), power-play goals (three) and game-winning goals (two). Ranking fourth in points among defensemen, this was what fans envisioned the moment the 6-foot-6 defenseman's name was called at the draft.
At age 18, the product of Sweden's legendary MODO club was immediately inserted into Tampa Bay's lineup, hailed as the latest hockey phenom from the town of Ornskoldsvik, whose prominent natives include Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and Tobias Enstrom as well as Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin.
"My hometown is 50,000 people. You come to Tampa and it's a whole lot more. It's a big difference and it took some time to get used to it, but I fell in love with the place right away. It's a second home now," Hedman said. "Everything is so big. You need a car everywhere. The people were so nice to me right away. I fit right in."
Hedman adapted well. He had already lived alone while playing for MODO and his girlfriend accompanied him to Tampa Bay. Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund, a fellow Swede Hedman had long admired growing up, immediately took the towering rookie under his wing.
Ohlund remains on Tampa Bay's roster, although knee injuries have kept him from playing since 2011.
"It's been a thrill to get to know him. He was one of those guys you looked up to when you first started playing. It was good to have him around and see him play," Hedman said. "He took us out to dinner right away. We just had a good time and became friends right away. He really took good care of me."
It took a few years, but after all the growing pains and wondering when the can't-miss prospect would finally blossom, Hedman became a franchise defenseman.
It still wasn't enough for his national team.
When Sweden's roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics was unveiled in January, Hedman's name was noticeably absent. It was a bold decision for a Swedish team that won silver, one Hedman admits stung.
"It's just something that you have to put away. It was tough not making the team, but you have to refocus," Hedman said. "Tampa Bay is who you work for, who you play for. So you have to focus on that. You always want to represent your country, so it was a tough one. I don't know if it was motivation or not, but it was tough not to make that team."
Hedman didn't cite the snub as a motivator, but he did score three goals and 14 points in the 12 games immediately following the Olympic announcement.
By season's end, the can't-miss kid who faced monstrous expectations since arriving in the NHL had sent a message. The same expectations have since been leveled at other teenaged defensive prospects like Adam Larsson, Seth Jones and Aaron Ekblad. But Hedman showed what is possible with some patience and a lot of hard work.
"It took a little longer than I wanted, but it's a learning curve and you have to go through it. It was good for me to come over when I was 18 and learn the game," Hedman said. "Obviously Tampa had a lot of faith in me and believed in me. It's been good, but there's been some pain here and there. There have been some tough games and tough years. It's all worth it now."
Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer