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Hedman showing poise, talent beyond his years

by Dan Rosen
He's playing 26 minutes a night in the NHL and using his size, speed and skills to set up tough guys like Todd Fedoruk for can't-miss shots against future Hall of Famers like Martin Brodeur.

He's quarterbacking Tampa Bay's power play and logging big minutes on the PK.

He's Victor Hedman, 18 years old and barely scratching the surface of his NHL potential. He is, in the most appropriate and respectful meaning of the word, a freak.

"He just doesn't look like a rookie, and not just the way he looks because he is big, but the way he skates, the way he thinks, the way he does things out there, he's more like a 30-year-old than 18," Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said according to the Tampa Tribune. "In my mind, he blew right by (any expectations)."

Hedman, the No. 2 pick in June's Entry Draft, came to the Lightning without the same fanfare and public promotion of 2008's No. 1 selection, Steven Stamkos. His bio in the Lightning media guide is listed under the "Additional Players" banner.

Stamkos, a center, struggled in the first half of the season. Hedman, a defenseman (and they usually take longer to blossom), is arguably Tampa's best blue-liner and one of its best players through four games. He has three assists, a plus-2 rating, six penalty minutes and is logging 25:58 per game.

Pretty remarkable stuff, but to Hedman, the top-ranked European in the 2009 Entry Draft and the Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League last season, this kind of early success is exactly what was supposed to happen.

"There are expectations, but I like it," the hulking, 6-foot-6, 230-pound Swedish defenseman told "There should be expectations. You play better when you play under pressure."

As much as Hedman appears to be making this whole transition from the Swedish Elite League to the NHL look like a piece of cake, he admits the adjustment is only just getting under way.

For one, playing defense over here compared to playing defense back in Sweden is remarkably different.

"We are playing against players that are going fast all the time here and it takes time," Hedman said. "You have to be patient. You don't need to rush everything. You can't think everything is going to be there right away, but it's been good so far and I have to keep on working hard to develop."

The adjustment is a heck of a lot easier when Hedman has the puck on his stick. That's when he says he's most comfortable and it shows, especially in the Lightning's home-opener against New Jersey last Thursday.

Hedman had a pair of assists in the game and both were beauties.

He first set up the play for Stamkos' goal 9:49 into the second period when he created space for himself by skating backward on the blue line, from the right point into the middle, before feeding Martin St. Louis at the right wing half-wall. St. Louis slotted a pass to Stamkos, who scored from above the hash marks.

"A very good player," said Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, who isn't in the business of promoting opposing players. 

Hedman's play to set up Fedoruk early in the third period was the kind that only the true stars in this League make.

With his head up, he outraced the Devils through the neutral zone before easily getting around Rod Pelley near the left wing boards. He skated into the circle and slid a crisp, cross-ice, tape-to-tape pass to Fedoruk, who wired a shot into the top of the net.

"I just try to play my game and that's what they want me to do," Hedman said. "You can't go around thinking you're 18 so it's OK to make mistakes. Obviously if you play a lot of minutes they want you to produce so you need to focus on what you need to do."

"He's just not nervous with the competition," Lighting associate coach Rick Wilson said according to the Tampa Tribune.  "Maybe he doesn't know the competition. Ignorance is bliss, right?"

Hedman, though, is smart enough to know he needs a strong support system to help him through the early years in the NHL and the transition to North America.
"He just doesn't look like a rookie, and not just the way he looks because he is big, but the way he skates, the way he thinks, the way he does things out there, he's more like a 30-year-old than 18." - Vinny Lecavalier
His parents are visiting him right now, but his girlfriend, Sanna Grundberg, who is also 18 and from the town of Ornskoldsvik, is living with him. Sanna can't work now because she doesn't have a green card, but she's there after every game and practice to support Hedman.

"It's big for me to have her here and to feel comfortable," Hedman said. "It's very important."

Mattias Ohlund, a 33-year-old veteran Swedish defenseman, is also a key asset for Hedman. Ohlund, who came to Tampa this summer after 11 seasons in Vancouver, is his defense partner on the ice --and his guide to life in the NHL off the ice.

"I have been to his house a number of times and he has made it easier for me to adjust," Hedman said. "He's been in the League for a while and he has a lot more information on the small details."

Hedman, though, deserves most of the credit.

Twenty-six minutes a game in the NHL speaks volumes, and it's only the beginning.

"He's just one of those big guys that can skate," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. "When you can have a defensemen that's big, can skate like that and with his poise, those are very few in the NHL. He's one of them."

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