The common response when NHL experts were asked about Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman the last three years has been about how good he will be in the future.
Hedman’s steady progress and his stand-out talent have already opened a lot of eyes around the league before his 21st birthday. Now, Lightning fans will have at least five more seasons after this one to watch Hedman’s rise toward his projected place among the NHL’s elite defensemen.
The 6 foot 6 Swede signed a five-year contract extension recently, avoiding any nerve-wracking postseason negotiations.
“From both sides, there was contact early,” Hedman said. “It was just a matter of when it was going to happen. I was still focusing on hockey, but it’s great to know that I am assured to stay. I love it here in Tampa. It’s a great place to play.”
Hedman, the second pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft, continues to take steps forward in his development.
As an 18-year old rookie, Hedman played almost 21 minutes a game – fourth on the team. He was second on the team last season ice time and put up 26 points. Hedman averaged a team-high 23 minutes going into Saturday’s game at Philadelphia.
“He’s getting better every game he plays,” Lightning defenseman Brett Clark said. “His work ethic is next to none. He works hard in the gym and, on the ice, he’s always asking questions and trying to learn.
“Victor is not afraid out there. Even when he makes a mistake, he’s the first one back, battling hard. That’s what you like to see from young players. The deal he got is well deserved. He’s earned it.”
Hedman had a solid regular season a year ago, but played well beyond his years in the playoffs. In the final 14 games of the run against Pittsburgh, Washington and Boston, Hedman had five assists and was plus-4 in the most pressure-filled atmosphere he has ever faced.
“I felt comfortable,” Hedman said. “It was a great experience, a great run. It gives you a taste that makes you want more.”
Hedman said he came to camp this season wanting develop his defensive game further.
Many young defensemen picked so high try to force their way onto the score sheet and it hurts their defense. Offense, many times, comes from good defense. That’s a mindset Hedman is trying to use.
“I’m trying to become a good two-way player and be a force on the ice,” said Hedman, who played a career-high 29:11 at Florida Nov. 25. “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.”
Lightning coach Guy Boucher has seen Hedman’s progress this season in many different areas.
Boucher said Hedman has made stronger decisions on when to skate with the puck, when to pass and has been more of an imposing figure playing against the top lines.
“His gap defensively is better than last year and he is so much tougher physically,” Boucher said. “At the end of last year, he was in the right places and he was rubbing guys out. 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.”
Hedman has just two goals and one assist this season, but Boucher said the points will come because he has been in the right spots to produce.
“He has been our best [defenseman] at finding holes in the offensive end,” Boucher said. “He just hasn’t been able to finish. To me, that’s the last part of his development. If that’s where we are, we’re in a good spot.”
Getting a long term contract affects players in different ways, causing them to slack off, feel more stress from expectations or relax. Boucher isn’t very concerned about Hedman’s reaction.
“We’ll see,” Boucher said. “But, one thing about Victor, he’s a very dedicated athlete. He’s a horse in the gym. He never misses anything. He’s always first on the ice and last out. [Sidney] Crosby got a ton of money and I didn’t see a change in his game. Steven Stamkos is on pace for 50 goals and he got a big contract. I would certainly bet on [Hedman] to keep getting better.”
Boucher sees Hedman as a Zdeno Chara-like defenseman going forward, getting more physical as he gets older, with great mobility for his size and a big shot.
Stamkos is signed for the next five seasons and former first-round picks Brett Connolly and Carter Ashton are in the first of three-year entry deals. Dana Tyrell was also signed a two-year extension recently.
The plan to draft, develop and keep top young players is in full motion for the Lightning.
“We’re building a good foundation,” Hedman said. “We have our top [veteran] guys locked up for a long time, too. I’m really excited to be part of that.”