Skip to main content
eric duhatschek

In many ways, the NHL's attack of the Swedish defencemen mirrors a phenomenon that unfolded in Quebec in the 1990s, when a generation of young goaltenders all wanted to emulate Patrick Roy and follow in his footsteps.

Much the same thing happened in Sweden, thanks to the exceptional Nicklas Lidstrom, who became the defining defensive player of his era playing for the Detroit Red Wings and internationally for the Tre Kronor.

The net effect of having a role model such as Lidstrom can be seen in today's National Hockey League, where so many of the league's top young defencemen hail from Sweden.

There is Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Arizona, Hampus Lindholm in Anaheim and here, in the Stanley Cup final, the massive, unmovable force that is Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Hedman has played himself into the Conn Smythe Trophy MVP conversation with a superb playoff.

He has been as pivotal to Tampa's playoff run as Duncan Keith has been to Chicago's – a force offensively and defensively – and nowhere were his contributions more evident than in Monday's 3-2 win over the Hawks, when two smart plays by Hedman set up the first and third Lightning goals.

One came on a 140-foot rope of a pass to spring Ryan Callahan, the other on a shorter seeing-eye pass to Cedric Paquette for the game-winner, which moved the Lightning out in front 2-1 in the series.

What sets Hedman apart from his Swedish defensive peers is his size – a 6-foot-6 frame that allows him to make plays with that little extra bit of reach. He is Chris Pronger, without the overt mean streak.

Hedman is now the second-longest-serving member of the Lightning after Steven Stamkos, who has had a chance to watch his teammate's development from the start.

According to Stamkos, there is nothing more challenging than to come into the NHL as an 18-year-old defenceman, drafted second overall (in 2009), with all the pressure and expectations that carries.

"You see him mature as a player and as a person, evolve as a leader on this team," Stamkos said Tuesday.

"People are starting to see Victor on a world stage now, but in this room, we knew he was that player all along. It takes time in this league.

"He's been an absolute beast for us out there. Very rarely do you see the combination of size and speed and smarts."

Historically, the team that wins the third game in the Cup final goes on to win the series about 80 per cent of the time, though it's hard to say how much history matters in a playoff year in which the margins are so thin and the differences between the teams so minuscule.

The reality is that every one of these games hinges on small turns or unpredictable breaks, and so playmakers are of the essence.

Thus far, Stamkos, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the three most well-known forwards in the series, have all failed to score a goal in the final, something Lightning coach Jon Cooper dismissed as irrelevant at this stage of the playoffs, in which the emphasis is on what the team collectively achieves.

"It's not easy to score every game. Stammer had 43 during the year, second most in the league," Cooper said.

"That's scoring one every other game. In this league, the way teams play defence, the exceptional goaltending, to get a goal every other game is a pretty good accomplishment. I don't look at the fact that those three guys haven't scored. The great thing about our room is we just look to see what team has the most goals at the end of the game."

As good a job as general manager Steve Yzerman has done in rebuilding the Lightning in short order, he is the first to acknowledge he inherited two special building blocks – Stamkos and Hedman – from the previous regime.

Hedman was left off Sweden's Olympic team last year, in part because there is just so much depth in their system, including Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya, two top-four defencemen on Chicago.

The quietly effective Oduya played limited minutes Monday night because of what Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described as an upper-body injury. If Oduya misses Game 4, it will put further strain on Chicago's already depleted blueline, which is dearly missing Michal Rozsival's presence.

Hedman suggested that being left off the Swedish Olympic team for more experienced hands was disappointing, but not necessarily motivating, and he put the snub behind him right away to focus on Tampa's goals.

As for Cooper's assertion that these playoffs have been Hedman's coming-out party, the defenceman typically deflected the praise, saying: "It's easy for an individual to get better when you play with such great teammates.

"It's no different for me. I always go out there and want to make a difference at both ends of the ice."

Stamkos didn't make Canada's Olympic team for Sochi, either, but that was for injury reasons.

"In a heartbeat, we would both trade the opportunity to be where we are today," Stamkos said.

"Everyone wants to represent their country on the highest stage, but as a kid, growing up wanting to be an NHL player, first and foremost you want to win a Stanley Cup. We're fortunate enough to be two wins away from our ultimate dream – and that is our main focus right now."