: Leading up to draft day, we had all heard how impressed the scouts were with Victor Hedman
. But nothing beats watching him play in person. It’s been said that while goaltending is the most important position, defense is the hardest. (In addition to the physical demands of playing defense, every blueliner must make crucial decisions throughout a game. Forwards, too, are faced with numerous choices, but defensemen might be able to help cover up a forward’s mistake. A d-man’s error, however, likely leads directly to an opposition scoring chance.)
Hedman is blessed with terrific physical skills. His passes are tape-to-tape – fans at Friday’s home game versus Atlanta saw Hedman wire a pass from his own blueline straight up the middle to a streaking Vinny Lecavalier. The puck just hopped off Vinny’s stick, but this is the sort of skilled play Hedman can execute. Furthermore, he’s a big man who can skate exceptionally well. And obviously, he’s capable of taking the body against the opposition. Still, what has impressed head coach Rick Tocchet the most about the 18-year old Swede are the intangibles: his poise in pressure situations and his ability to read plays.
It’s true that Victor played in the Swedish Elite League against men rather than teenagers, but that’s not necessarily a guaranteed formula to a quick education. As a contrast, take Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson, 19, was the 15th overall selection in 2008. Like Hedman, he played last year in the Swedish Elite League. When the Lightning faced the Sens on Monday in Regina, Karlsson was in the lineup. He’s a very good player and he’s likely going to be with the Sens this year. But on Monday, he looked tentative in some making some of his decisions – in other words, he is a teenager adjusting to playing defense in the NHL. Hedman simply doesn’t have that look. This is not a condemnation of Karlsson – rather, it’s a statement about just how unusual it is for someone that young to appear so seasoned, especially on defense. It would be foolish not to expect that Victor will encounter some bumps along the way – and that, like every defenseman who’s ever played, he’ll make mistakes – but to this point, Lightning coaches and management are thrilled at how he’s fared.
BRIGHT FUTURE: No matter what players end up on the Lightning’s opening day roster, this camp has illustrated how bright the future is for some of the youngest draftees. Specifically, Carter Ashton and James Wright have enjoyed exceptional camps. As referenced in an earlier post, Ashton, the 29th overall pick in last summer’s draft, isn’t shy about getting to the net. He, as Tocchet likes to say, is an A – B player; in other words, he takes a direct path to where he needs to go.
Wright has been the biggest – and most pleasant – surprise in camp. From the very first day, the 2008 fourth round pick has done everything well both in practice and in scrimmages. He’s been able to translate that play into preseason games, too. Tocchet called Wright the Lightning’s best player on Monday against the Senators. He followed up that performance with a two-assist effort Tuesday against Phoenix. He skates well, knifes through traffic, takes the puck to the net, kills penalties, wins faceoffs and, most importantly, plays with a sense of urgency and purpose.
Additionally, 2009 second round pick Richard Panik, who was sent to Windsor last week, impressed during his time in camp. He looks like he’s going to develop into a dynamic player with a wonderful scoring knack. He’s going to a great team in Windsor, too, which is coming off a Memorial Cup Championship last spring.
GOALTENDING: Before Mike Smith arrived in February of 2008, the Lightning were seeking stability in net. Before getting hurt last year, Smith established himself as a true #1 NHL goalie. This camp has demonstrated the organization’s depth at that position. Tocchet told me during our pregame interview on Tuesday that if he were grading positions, he’d give goaltending an “A”. Smith, Antero Niittymaki, Jaroslav Janus, Dustin Tokarski and Riku Helenius have all performed quite well.
There are still some questions to be answered in the final few preseason games. Which players will comprise the third and fourth lines? Which defensemen will earn a roster spot? And who will start the season on right wing with Vinny Lecavalier and Alex Tanguay? By this time next week, we should have the answers to those questions.
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