TORONTO -- Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman finally ended his near six-year chase to catch up to his high expectations in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.
All it did for him was create even higher expectations going into this season.
"The one thing with Victor is he's always been blessed with these physical tools. But with him I think it came down to opportunity and then it came down to in some part believing he can be in that upper echelon of defenseman," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Now Victor is so much more comfortable with himself and playing the game that I think what we're going to see is him playing at a consistently high level will be the norm now. Maybe that's the expectation of him now. Maybe it is."
Defense - TBL
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 14
SOG: 64 | +/-: 11
Hedman finally reached elite status last season because he showed on the national stage that he is equivalent to a package of Erik Karlsson
and Shea Weber
in Zdeno Chara
His rushes up the ice were as breathtaking for the spectators, including those on his own bench, as they were frightening for the opposition. He got through the three zones with speed befitting that of a swift, slender forward, not a 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman.
He had 14 points in 26 playoff games after he had 13 points in the last 21 regular-season games.
"It takes him five strides and he's down the ice," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "The combination of size and speed is pretty much unmatched in the game right now. That's what makes him so difficult to get around defensively and that's what makes him so effective on the rush, is that he can make the plays."
Hedman's stretch passes out of Tampa Bay's zone, like the one to Ryan Callahan that led to the first goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, were crisp, beautiful and unstoppable.
"Very unique," said New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, a fellow Swede who saw Hedman's star grow up close in the Eastern Conference Final last season. "He's tall, strong and he's a great skater who can move the puck really well. That combination makes him very unique."
Hedman's play on the defensive end was punishing. Anyone who dared go into a corner with him did so at their own terrifying risk.
"With his size and his speed, it's a tough combination," said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who played with Hedman in Russia during the lockout in 2012. "He was a handful for us and he's going to be a handful for a lot of teams for a lot of years."
That's been the expectation for Hedman since the Lightning took him with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. He was supposed to be a fast, skilled, punishing, gigantic defenseman. He also was supposed to be what he became in the playoffs last season.
It just took him some time to get there, as it does with most defensemen in the NHL.
Hedman isn't most defensemen anymore. He had 93 points in 134 games the past two seasons after he had 89 points in 258 games during his first four seasons.
LIGHTNING PREVIEW STORIES
"It was a matter of development," Hedman said. "I think the way I played in Sweden was similar, but I had flaws in my game. I feel like a more complete player now. Obviously it has to do with age and experience, but the way I played last year and in the playoffs is the way I envision it to be. It's up to me to not be satisfied. I have to look ahead and try to be even better."
Think about that statement for a second. He wants to be better.
He arguably was the best player on the ice in almost every game, with the exception of a few against Duncan Keith and the Blackhawks.
And he wants to be better?
"The great thing about him is he's always been one of those guys that is like, 'Tell me where to go and I'll do it for you,' as opposed to, 'Why aren't I out there?'" Cooper said. "Now he's got me to a point where I can't throw him over the boards enough, and it's turned into, 'Hey, you've got to give me a break here for a second.'"
Hedman isn't asking for a break now. He's asking for more out of himself. That's why he spent the summer in Sweden training as hard as he ever has with his personal strength coach, former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Hans Jonsson.
Hedman said his work with Jonsson is why he is as fast as he is on the ice.
"We work a lot on quick feet, speed, all workouts for hockey to help me develop my game," Hedman said. "We try to keep the speed up and try to get faster, but I've had to work on it a lot since I was younger. I was tall and skinny, so it didn't come naturally to me."
Hedman said playing soccer as a child helped him develop his speed. It's why he encourages children he meets now to play multiple sports.
"I'm a pretty good runner too, and we do sprints, everything like that, things that translate," he said. "It's important for kids to play different sports because it translates into each other, and I think I had a lot of stuff from soccer go into my hockey."
Now he's got a lot of confidence from last season going into this season. Now he's planning to be even better than he was during the Lightning's run to the Cup Final.
Now that's scary.
"The last 20 games [of the regular season] and the playoffs I took my game to another level," Hedman said. "I felt confident in my game, that I could be a difference maker on both sides. The way I played in the playoffs, I want to ride that wave going into this year."