As if the battle for the Norris Trophy needed any more viable candidates, here is the Tampa Bay Lightning's Viktor Hedman, off to an exceptional start and proving once again that even the most likely regarded, massively talented defensive behemoths need time to find their NHL sea legs.
Hedman is now in his sixth season and starts a trip Saturday with the Tampa Bay Lightning that will see them visit all four Canadian-based Western Conference teams in the next six days. Vancouver is a unique and special first stop because he gets to play against the Sedin twins for a rare time. Hedman is from the same northern Swedish town as the Sedins – Ornskoldsvik – and played his developmental years for the same club team Modo before going second overall to Tampa in the 2009 NHL entry draft.
Because of his draft position and his size – 6-foot-6 – Hedman is frequently compared to Chris Pronger, the second overall choice in 1993, who is also 6-foot-6, and wasn't an overnight NHL sensation either. Pronger spent two formative years playing for the Hartford Whalers, before being traded to St. Louis for Brendan Shanahan. It was with the Blues that he gradually evolved into an NHL force. Hedman has many of the same skills as Pronger – great vision, exceptional reach, and a cannonading shot from the point. About the only thing lacking is the overt mean streak. Hedman can and does play physically, but doesn't cross the line nearly as frequently as Pronger did, especially early in his career.
With seven points in his first four games, Hedman is leading NHL defencemen in scoring, which is usually a contributing factor to any Norris Trophy consideration. Right now, many believe the NHL's best defenceman is the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty, who plays in a system where he will probably never put up big scoring points, and thus can sometimes has been overlooked when the votes are counted. Shea Weber, PK Subban, Erik Karlsson, Ryan Suter, Zdeno Chara, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, Mark Giordano, Ryan McDonough – the list of capable and occasionally brilliant NHL defenceman is creeping up, not down.
There is a temptation to call this a breakout year for Hedman, but that would not be accurate. After four seasons of middling offensive production and a gradual, but uneven learning curve, Hedman's breakout year came last year already – 55 points in 75 games and the other primary reason, beyond Ben Bishop's goaltending, why the Lightning were able to overcome the lengthy absence of Steven Stamkos with a broken leg and still finish with 101 regular-season points.
Everything just started to fall into place for Hedman, who explained in an interview: "Obviously, last year was a big step in the right direction. For me, everything came together. I started producing more offensively. I felt like I got to play my game – a two-way game that is my strength as a player, to be able to play in both ends of the ice. I just want to keep building on that – and building on the success of last year."
Tampa is 2-1-1 thus far this season and clobbered Montreal on Monday, in a game where Stamkos managed a hat trick and Hedman produced four points.
"We had a good mix last year – of veteran guys coming in and young guys that faced a lot of adversity and battled through. Stammer going down in Boston, we were without him for a long time. It felt like guys stepped up all the time. (Ondrej) Palat and (Tyler) Johnson came in and were big factors – (Alex) Killorn and (Nikita) Kucherov, guys who made their first appearances in the NHL and played like they'd been there for a long time. It was a very productive season for us."
With Stamkos back and healthy, and fellow Swede Anton Stralman signed away from the New York Rangers to play alongside Hedman, there is an opportunity for the Lightning to take that next step.
"Sure hope so," said Hedman. "We have a great mixture. Now that Stammer's back, we have everything in motion."