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CHICAGO – When I first met Victor Hedman at the 2009 NHL Draft, there were three things that stood out about him.
1. His freakish build. He looked like someone used a taffy pull to stretch Benicio Del Toro into Zdeno Chara’s body. Six-foot-six, over 220 pounds. A specimen on the level of a Chris Pronger, with a somewhat less apparent sadism.
2. That he wanted to be a hockey player/pilot, like Alexei Kovalev before him, a great aspiration that likely would be scuttled by whichever team drafted him as a franchise pillar. (You know, him being a multi-million dollar investment and all.) Still, it was nice to hear a life goal that was something other than "giving 110 percent" from a rookie.
3. That he was born in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, which is also the hometown of Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and apparently where the tap water is a performance enhancing substance, given the output.
It's a town of legendary NHL players.
It's a pantheon that Victor Hedman is about to enter.
“This is clearly his coming-out party,” said Tampa Bay Lightning Coach Jon Cooper after their 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Hedman, 24, was taken second overall in 2009 by the Lightning, with the New York Islanders taking center John Tavares first overall. (Let those revisionist debates commence if Hedman hoists the Cup in the next several days.) He had played among men with MODO in Sweden, making him a bit more seasoned than most defensemen entering the NHL.
But in his first four NHL seasons, Hedman hadn’t fully realized his potential. He’d score over 20 points. He’d eat up ice time. But he hadn’t make the leap to elite status. You don’t use a second overall pick for “Very Good.” Hedman had yet to level up past that status.
The reason, according to Cooper, was that he hadn’t mastered his responsibilities on the defensive end. Figure out how to stop the other team from scoring, and your own offensive game will thrive.
“Victor, he's just blossomed the last couple years. I think it was his skating that set him apart and his size, but he's really, really learned how to defend. I think everything starts with him defending. He doesn't spend a bunch of time in his own zone. I think just the way we play the game and our structure is kind of tailor-made for him,” said Cooper.
Since Cooper ascended to the Lightning head coaching gig from the AHL in 2013, Hedman’s numbers exploded: 55 points in 75 games last season, Cooper’s first full one with the Lightning; and then 38 in 59 games this season, after suffering an injury in late October that kept him out until Nov. 29.
“To be honest, he's pretty much got free rein with me,” said Cooper. “He earned that trust."
That trust was evident in Game 3 on Monday night: Hedman was a factor on two of the Lightning’s three goals, transitioning from defense to offense.
That pass. That amazing, laser-targeted pass across the ice. That beautiful rope stretched between teammates, before Ryan Callahan's blast to open the scoring.
After helping the Lightning quell the Blackhawks in their attacking zone, Hedman stood with the puck from behind his own goal line. He saw Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya fall down at center ice, springing Callahan on a break. His hard, slap-pass from the end boards perfectly fed him, and he finished with a rocket past Corey Crawford for the 1-0 lead.
"That's a great pass. He's trying to go to my forehand first, sees it gets taken away, and then he has the poise and patience to wait for me to get to my backhand and then he puts it right on my tape. It's an impressive pass," said Callahan.
The Blackhawks and Lightning were tied 2-2 late in the third period when Cooper’s “free rein” on Hedman led to a remarkable rush for the game winner.
He began the rush just over his own blue line, as Callahan hit him in full stride and three Blackhawks trailed the play. His entry put the Chicago defense on its heals and in trouble: Brent Seabrook was playing him and J.T. Brown on left wing; Kyle Cumiskey faded back to his own goal, failing to pick up Cedic Paquette as he slid in from right wing. Hedman went deep into the corner, fed Paquette, and scored on the one-timer.
“We made a great play there. Cal made a great play to put it there for me. The puck was starting to bobble a little bit, just trying to take it wide. Ced did a good job trying to crash the net and tried to put it in an area for him. That was a big goal for us,” said Hedman.
A big goal, a big moment, created by the hands of the biggest defenseman on the ice.
Cooper’s fond of saying this is Hedman’s “coming out party.” In one sense he’s wrong: Hedman has been on the map for NHL fans for the last two seasons, as much a pillar of this burgeoning powerhouse in Tampa as Steven Stamkos.
But the totality of his game - the smart physical play in his own end, combined with that incredibly fluid skating and offensive creativity down the ice – has never seen this spotlight or had this audience of witnesses. On the grandest stage the postseason offers, he’s been at his best: 14 points in 23 games, and a plus-12. The boy from Ornskoldsvik is being chatted up as a potential playoff MVP if the Lightning win the Cup.
Like Nicklas Lidstrom once did with the Detroit Red Wings.
You know, that other defenseman who made it easy in his own zone and then contributed mightily to the offensive machine in front of him, all while becoming Sweden’s hockey hero – and an idol for Hedman, as evidenced by his star-struck meeting with Lidstrom back in 2009.
He’s now two wins away from having his name etched on the same Holy Grail as Lidstrom, too.
“He was a monster out there tonight,” said Cooper of Hedman in Game 3.
“It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman's arrived.”
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