‘Sky’s the limit’ for Victor Hedman, Lightning

Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning battles for the puck against John Carlson of the Washington Capitals during an NHL game at Verizon Center on April 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. (NHLI via Getty/Patrick McDermott)

Jon Cooper’s dogs are barking.

The Tampa Bay Lightning coach has just finished the second of multiple on-ice sessions planned for the first day of training camp and his feet are feeling it. They’re still conditioned to cushy golf shoes, he explains while stretching out on the black leather couch in his office. Cooper is still largely horizontal when the conversation about one of the players he was just instructing begins.

Victor Hedman is coming off a breakout season in which his full range of abilities began to shine. As Cooper starts talking about the things Hedman can do and where he can still go, his posture quickly changes. Sore or not, his feet are back on the floor as the coach leans forward with unmistakable enthusiasm.

More and more, that’s the effect Hedman’s play is having on people.

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If the emergence of a nimble six-foot-six defenceman was the only big thing happening in Tampa, you could still forgive Bolts fans for being aflutter. But Hedman is just one reason why there are widespread rumblings about how good the Lightning might be this year. Tampa is coming off a season that somehow managed to seem cursed and charmed all at once—then everything ended with a thud.

Now, with sniper Steven Stamkos whole again, some new battle-scarred faces to complement a group of precocious kids and, of course, Hedman’s ongoing development, there’s sufficient evidence to believe the Lighting and their prized blueliner are primed for another simultaneous leap.

With his sixth NHL season on the horizon, it’s only natural that Hedman feels more at home than ever in Tampa Bay. He and his long-time girlfriend, Sanna, have had a couple years to settle into their house.

And on the ice, Hedman has become so accustomed to North America’s smaller rink dimensions that when he returns home to Sweden in the summer, the spacious European surfaces almost seem foreign.

“It feels like you skate forever and you don’t get anywhere,” he says.

Hedman was born and raised in Ornskoldsvik, the small city in northern Sweden made famous by the absurd amount of elite hockey talent it has produced, including Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, former Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund and current Winnipeg Jets defenceman Tobias Enstrom.

The players who had the biggest impact on Hedman, however, weren’t the guys starring for the city’s famous MODO squad, but his older brothers, Johan and Oscar. All three Hedmans eventually played pro hockey as defencemen, though Victor might have stayed in the net where his siblings initially stuck him if not for a little fretting on the part of his mom, Elisabeth.

Concerned about the way a goalie’s mistakes are laid bare for all to see, Elisabeth asked Victor—who enjoyed being a puckstopper—to consider a position switch. Even from a young age, Hedman knew a golden scoring chance when he saw one.

“I told her if I get a new stick and a new helmet, I’ll quit [playing net],” he says. “Christmastime came and that’s what I got.”

Many years after making the most of his mom’s request, Hedman is now doing the same with respect to his coaches in the NHL. Cooper is the first to acknowledge that his arrival in Tampa—he was hired with just 16 games left in the lockout-shortened 2012–13 season to replace Guy Boucher—nicely dovetailed with Hedman’s natural progression.

Still, it was Cooper and associate coach Rick Bowness who said they wanted Hedman heavily involved in the offensive mix. It may have been the perfect time to give the green light.

Having made the leap from the second-overall pick in 2009 straight to the NHL, Hedman experienced predictable turbulence during his first three seasons in the league. His fourth began with a work stoppage and Hedman used the opportunity to play in the KHL, where he saw a ton of ice time in all situations. He returned to the NHL a more confident player—especially on the power play—and was ready to run with the extra rope his coaches handed over.

“They told me to just play my game,” Hedman says, “and if they tell me to do that, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The result was a dominant 2013–14 campaign that, for anybody hung up on his early struggles, demonstrated why Hedman was such a highly touted prospect in the first place. He averaged more ice time per game than anybody else on the Lightning while playing on both the power play and penalty kill.

Hedman’s 55 points placed him fourth in scoring among all NHL defencemen and his possession numbers were fantastic—all during a season in which he turned 23.

“He’s just coming out of his shell,” Cooper says. “The sky’s the limit.”

A few factors combine to create that enormous promise. First off, his skating is so good that Hedman actually had a habit of blowing past teammates while carrying the puck, then getting into the offensive zone and having no one to pass to. Cooper says Hedman has now figured out that he can often be just as dangerous joining the rush late instead of always trying to lead it.

Defensively, it took a while for Hedman to adjust to the tighter dimensions of North American ice, but he’s got the angles sorted out now; and with his hulking frame Hedman believes he’s actually better suited to smaller ice.

Speaking of size, it’s crucial to remember that giant players often take a little bit longer to blossom. Getting those long limbs working in concert can be a process, but the results are often staggering.

“Look at the giant, Zdeno Chara,” Cooper says, referring to the fact that Chara was in his mid-20s before becoming a Norris Trophy–calibre defenceman.

And while Hedman won’t ever match Chara’s ornery disposition, Stamkos loves it when his teammate displays some snarl.

“When he’s on, he’s playing with that little edge,” Tampa’s superstar centre says. “He has a pretty calm demeanour to begin with, but when he plays with that little edge, that’s what kind of puts him over the top.”

Don’t be surprised if, in general, there’s a little anger in the warm air around the Bolts this season. The lengthy list of things that happened in Tampa last year include a broken right tibia for Stamkos, a trade request by former captain Martin St. Louis that was accommodated, and a breakout year from goalie Ben Bishop that was snuffed out just a week before the playoffs by a dislocated elbow.

Through it all, Cooper, in his first full year behind an NHL bench, took a team that had made the playoffs just once in the previous six seasons and guided them to a 101-point campaign and a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division.

“It was like we lived five NHL seasons in one,” Cooper says.

But ask the coach what stuck with him after that script-worthy series of events and you won’t hear about injuries, surprise performances or the loss of a player who was central to the only Cup win in franchise history.

“Whenever anybody brings up the year, unfortunately, my first recollection will be being swept in four games,” he says.

Objectively, it’s hard to believe the Montreal Canadiens’ quick first-round dismissal of the Bolts wasn’t at least partially due to Bishop’s absence and the fact that Stamkos was nowhere near full health. For his part, Cooper says everybody on the Bolts had to be better in that series, starting right at the top with himself.

Regardless, the jolting loss means that, despite being pegged by many as an Eastern Conference contender this year, the Lightning aren’t in any danger of believing their own press.

“Because we got slapped in the face a little bit, there’s a hunger here,” Cooper says. “The guys want to get back there and prove that wasn’t who we are.”

What the Bolts are hoping to show off is an intriguing blend of fledgling talent and, thanks to some key off-season moves, sturdy vets.

GM Steve Yzerman acquired former New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan in the St. Louis trade and the scrappy right winger signed a $34.8-million contract to stay in Tampa for the next six years.

Two other former Rangers—enormous bottom-six forward Brian Boyle and top-four defenceman Anton Stralman—also inked free-agent deals with Tampa in July.

Sophomore forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat earned out-of-the-blue Calder Trophy nominations last year, and in addition to their speedy legs, Tampa figures to have 19-year-old Jonathan Drouin—considered one of the best prospects in hockey—up front this October. And don’t forget about Stamkos. With a full summer to properly strengthen and rest his wounded leg, the 24-year-old captain’s mind and body should be on the same page again.

“That was a big thing I was dealing with when I came back,” he says. “Obviously, physically, I didn’t feel the same, but mentally was probably the tougher part. You find [you’re sometimes thinking of] protecting yourself rather than instinctively making the play you did before.”

In a sense, Stamkos is just one of the people who should be feeling more comfortable in Tampa. Despite having just 98 games on his NHL coaching resumé, not much is going to catch Cooper off guard given everything he’s already seen.

And thanks to Hedman, some of the fresh arrivals should acclimate pretty quickly to their new surroundings. Hedman was one of the first guys who reached out to Boyle when players started landing for the new season and the two hooked up for a round of golf.

As for Stralman, he has already spent time playing with a Hedman, having skated alongside Oscar on a couple occasions with the Swedish national team. Now, he’s a natural right-shooting candidate to play beside Oscar’s little brother just as the junior Hedman truly comes into his own.

“He’s a package,” Stralman says. “He can do it all, really.”

Maybe the Lightning can, too.