All signs point to Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman making his first appearance in six weeks tonight when the Bolts host the Ottawa Senators at Amalie Arena.
Hedman, who fractured a finger after taking a quick succession of slap shots off the hand on October 18 at Vancouver, has been skating for three to four weeks and was one of 10 Lightning players on the ice this morning for an optional team skate at Amalie Arena.
“I’m available to play,” Hedman said. “Have to wait to see what the coach says. I’m preparing myself for the game tonight. He’s got the last word, so I’ll have to wait and see about that.”
Asked later whether Hedman would play tonight, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said: “There’s a pretty good chance.”
Hedman had scored three goals, including the overtime game-winner in the season opener against Florida, and collected four assists in five games before the injury, which occurred exactly six weeks to the day.
The initial prognosis was Hedman would be out four to six weeks.
“You can’t judge anything after five games, but clearly he was playing as well as he played in his career,” Cooper said. “I know it was a short five games, but he’s just taken a step I think from last year when it was kind of his breakout season.”
Including the Vancouver game in which Hedman was injured, the Lightning went 13-5-1 despite playing without their best defenseman, who was a Norris Trophy candidate before getting hurt.
“When you look at it, it’s signs of we’ve got a little bit of depth in our organization,” Cooper said. “…When you start having depth in the organization and guys start picking each other up, that’s how you can still keep your head above water. It’s all started with (goaltender Ben Bishop) has been really good for us. I think our team’s deeper this year, and so we’ve had the ability to make up for the loss of Victor Hedman. I think Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison have been two huge reasons on the back end why we were able to weather the storm.”
Hedman said he has been skating hard over the past few weeks and doesn’t think stamina will be a concern if he plays tonight. He also doesn’t expect to have to ease himself back into the rotation.
“You know me, I want to play as much as I can right away, but it’s obviously up to me to prove that right away,” he said. “So, we’ll have to wait and see until game time where I’m at.”
Cooper said Friday’s trade of Eric Brewer, which sent the veteran to Anaheim in exchange for a third-round draft pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, was as much about wanting to give younger defensemen an opportunity rather than anything Brewer had done on the ice.
And with Hedman available to play, the Lightning had more options on the blue line.
Brewer played in 17 games this season for the Lightning and had four assists but had been a healthy scratch in four of the Bolts’ last five games.
“I think in the short term it’ll probably hurt a little bit because of our depth,” Cooper said. “But I think it was the best thing for a guy who had been in the league 15 years and earned the right to be on the ice. You can call us right or wrong for the playing time, but we have a commitment to get some of these kids some ice time. We move forward as an organization. That’s why the deal was done.”
Brewer was entering his fifth season with the Lightning in 2014-15. He played in 246 games, scoring 10 goals and assisting on 46 more. He had 180 penalty minutes in his four-and-a quarter seasons with the Bolts.
“Brew has been around for a long time, and losing a guy like him is going to hurt us in the short run,” Hedman said. “But…we have a lot of good players on this team. He hadn’t played for a while, so for him to go to Anaheim and play, it’s going to be good for him. It’s a tough one; he’s a tough guy to lose. He’s a veteran. His leadership on and off the ice, how professional he was even though he didn’t play a whole lot down the road, it’s tough to see a guy that played here for a long time go like that.”
One player whose time on the ice figures to increase with Brewer departed is Mark Barberio. Cooper said Barberio had his best game of the season on Wednesday against the Rangers, and the former third round draft pick (66th overall) in 2010 has started four of the last five games after seeing action in just three of 18 previously.
“My approach is still going to be the same,” Barberio said. “Whatever playing time I’m going to get, I’m thankful for. If there’s times I’m going to have to sit out, that’s fine. It’s all about winning. Whatever the coach thinks is the best lineup for that certain game, that’s what we’ve got to go with.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Bishop wasn’t on the ice for Tampa Bay’s optional morning skate, suggesting he will get the start tonight in goal, his fourth in a row…Cooper said Vladislav Namestnikov and J.T. Brown will be healthy scratches tonight. Namestnikov is scratched for the second time in three games after appearing in the first 21 games of the season…With Hedman returning, Cooper said he is close to announcing permanent alternate captains. The Lightning have been rotating their alternates each game. “I’ll wait for a slow news day, and we’ll bring that out for you,” Cooper joked.