By Ryan Dixon in Toronto
By Ryan Dixon in Toronto
A global pandemic. A totally new playoff format. The weirdest NHL season ever. What better year for Victor Hedman and the Lightning to finally hoist the Cup? After all, they've had everything else thrown at them.

For a moment, Victor Hedman is asking the questions. It’s March 9 and sports junkies like the all-world Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman are starting to kick around options for their fantasy baseball lineups. Twenty-four hours before the Lightning face the Toronto Maple Leafs in what will be both teams’ final outing for a long time, Hedman wonders aloud if young Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. should be high on his list.

The baseball talk comes just after Hedman’s session in a Sportsnet studio for 31 Thoughts: The Podcast and right before he folds himself into an Uber with yours truly for a little talk-and-ride down to the St. Regis Toronto. After suggesting Vladdy might still be a year away from really popping off, I get to pose some queries of my own. Some of them centre on things Hedman can gush about, like the development of yet more up-and-coming Bolts or his recent spot on the massive soccer podcast Men in Blazers. When talking about the footy moment, Hedman’s smile is probably visible as far away as his hockey-famous hometown of Ornskoldsvik in northern Sweden. But as our driver ferries us through Toronto streets still at pre-COVID capacity, there is also the subject matter that’s become an annual springtime grind for anyone in a Bolts jersey: The playoffs. The failures. The endless “What now?” moments.

As the entire world knows, the Lightning have yet to shed their label as hockey’s biggest can’t-quite-get-it-done team. Despite the fact Tampa sets the gold standard in so many ways, every swing-and-miss is a blown opportunity — and you never know how many cuts you’re going to get. That harsh reality was one Hedman absorbed from former teammate Brenden Morrow, who retired without a ring following Tampa’s six-game Stanley Cup Final loss to Chicago in 2015. “I think it was his first year he went all the way to the Final [with the Dallas Stars in 2000],” Hedman says. “Then 15 years later — and not before that — he was back in the Final. You can’t take anything for granted.”

This year is going to stand for decades as a wrenching reminder that none of us really ever know what’s around the corner. While the global pandemic represents an unprecedented issue for every team, the Lightning — and especially captain Steven Stamkos — probably feel like they’ve bumped up against all the traditional challenges at this point. Since 2014, no squad has played more playoff games than Tampa’s 68 without hoisting the big silver mug. Inevitably, that’s fed the notion that the avant-garde outfit needs to unlock its inner knuckle-dragger to succeed in hockey’s second, more physical season.

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There have been times the Bolts must have felt kneecapped by the Hockey Gods, like when Ben Bishop — at the end of a Vezina-calibre year in 2013–14 — reached for a fluttering puck, lost his balance and crumpled to the ice in the shape of a squished plastic bottle during a meaningless game versus the Maple Leafs. With Bishop sidelined by an elbow injury, a Tampa squad that finished third in the Eastern Conference standings that year was bounced in four first-round games by Montreal after backups Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis combined to post an .884 save percentage. Two years later, the April gut-punch was Stamkos being diagnosed with a blood clot just before the playoffs. On other occasions, the Lightning have been masters of their own demise. Tampa held a 3–2 series edge on the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final, leaving it one win away from a date with an upstart expansion team in the Cup Final. The NHL’s most fearsome offensive machine then scored precisely zero goals in two consecutive losses to the Caps, who became champions shortly thereafter by dusting the Vegas Golden Knights. Then there was the spring of 2019, when a 128-point Lightning team built a 3–0 first period lead in Game 1 of their opening-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets and scored five more goals total in the next 11 periods of hockey during a four-game sweep that represented an all-time jaw-dropper of an upset.

Hedman acknowledges that, in the aftermath of that devastation, you just want the next chance to come right away. Instead, you have to clear all the same hurdles one more time before getting your next shot. This time out, everyone was thrown by a massive left turn. But after long stretches of wondering if we’d see the Stanley Cup handed out at all this year, an enormous hockey tournament is upon us — and nobody has to tell Tampa Bay that every crack is precious.

The style-over-substance criticisms of Tampa don't stick to Hedman, who's widely acknowledged to be the game's best two-way defenceman

This week, the Lightning will embark on a playoff format they — along with the Carolina Hurricanes — voted against. As a top-four finisher in the Eastern Conference by points percentage, Tampa will play one game apiece against the other top clubs, then start a seven-game series versus a squad that’s already sharpened its claws with a best-of-five qualifying round series win. Alex Killorn, Tampa’s NHLPA representative, explained the team wasn’t comfortable starting the main post-season draw relatively cold compared to an opponent that’s emerged from a live-ammunition situation. And speaking on the second day of training camp 2.0 via Zoom, Hedman confirmed Killorn spoke for the entire club when he voiced those concerns. He also said the page was rapidly turned when the vote went the other way.

“It’s 31 teams and everyone has their own opinion [about the format],” he said. “We, as a group, [were united] on that vote, but at the end of the day we accept what everyone else thought as well. We’re on-board and we’re happy to be back together. That’s behind us now. We know what’s ahead. We’re in this”

Tampa GM Julien BriseBois got more poetic before camp, saying his team was “going to embrace the suck and dance in the rain.” The difficulties for the Bolts include the fact they’re based in Florida, a state that was producing in excess of 10,000 new positive COVID-19 tests per day through the middle of July. The Lightning actually had to shut down the team’s training facility during Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan, when three members of the organization tested positive in late June. Regardless, they’re in the Toronto bubble now with the understanding it’s on them to conquer whatever awaits.

“You’ve still got to be able to concentrate and play at your best and have that edge to your game,” said Hedman, who stayed in Tampa a few extra days to tend to a personal matter before joining his teammates on Friday. “It doesn’t matter if there are people in the stands or not, you’ve got to go out there and have that [hunger] to win the Cup.”

It must be noted, there’s something incongruous about bringing the knocks on Tampa Bay — don’t play enough defence, short on the grit required to play chips-down hockey — to Hedman. Afterall, he’s widely acknowledged as the best two-way defenceman in the game, and though he doesn’t carry himself with a Chris Pronger-like mean streak, his six-foot-six frame has an astonishing way of making free ice disappear. The early-March day we hopped in a Nissan Rogue together and headed out into downtown Toronto, it felt like he could drive the thing from the back seat. Still, the fact the second-overall pick from the 2009 NHL Draft has everything you want in a hockey player doesn’t change the fact these nagging criticisms about his team won’t go away. To that end, former GM Steve Yzerman acquired defence-minded Ryan McDonagh at the 2018 trade deadline. Last summer, BriseBois — who replaced Yzerman when the latter departed for Detroit — inked Patrick Maroon to a one-year deal shortly after ‘Big Rig’ was a meaningful part of a Stanley Cup win for one of those celebrated “heavy” units, the St. Louis Blues. In February, BriseBois added more unpleasantness in the form of Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

A series of bad breaks and bad showings have turned the Lightning into a target for playoff skepticism despite their consistent regular-season excellence

“We’re a little bit grittier,” says Hedman. “Not just the new guys, but kind of our mentality has changed, paying a little bit more attention to our own end and keeping pucks out of our own net. That’s been a big talking point around our team; we have all the skill in the world to score goals, but it’s just about keeping them out and helping out our goaltenders a little bit more and I think that’s been the biggest change as a group, is our mindset going into games, not giving up odd-mans, breakaways, Grade A chances like we’ve done in the past and relying on our goaltenders to bail us out. … But not sacrificing our offensive skill.”

Everyone understands there’s no secret sauce to be discovered here. There’s also a really interesting debate to be had about how far a truly fantastic Bolts club should move from its DNA in the hopes of finding a winning template. The go-for-it nature of players on his team and in this league is a big part of what I talked to Tampa coach Jon Cooper about in March of 2019, when Tampa was on another late-season swing through Michigan and Southern Ontario. Though the team destroyed the NHL that year, tying the NHL record of 62 victories, they were at the point in their arc where all that mattered was what happened come the post-season.

During a practice day in Detroit, I stood alone with Cooper in the hallway outside Tampa’s dressing room and picked his brain. Maybe the 52-year-old would sing a different tune today with one more catastrophic result on his team’s playoff resume, but this is a bench boss who — while certainly preaching accountability — has always recognized the folly of swimming upstream. “The biggest thing for me is the mentality of the player,” Cooper said when asked how things had shifted league-wide since he was hired in March of 2013. “[Back then], you’ve got the 30-plus player who is still in the league, grinding it out, blocking shots — just more of a defensive-minded game. The players did not have as much risk in their game. Now, you look at the [over-30] players becoming extinct and 18-to-21-year-old players are now the guys. They don’t know any different and they’ve got such a bravado that they will play chance-for-chance. It’s just in their nature to go and score.

“When we have the puck, we have five offensive players. And when we don’t have the puck, we have five defensive players. There’s no such thing as forward and D, and I guess that’s kind of our mentality when we play. Who am I to snuff out some of our elite players when they’re trying to make the odd risky, calculated play? That’s where the give-and-take comes into play. I try to meet some of these guys in the middle of what they want to do and what we’re doing as a group, and it’s been a big part of our success.”

So much of the prosperity — Tampa’s .652 points percentage over the past eight seasons is tops in the league — is tied not to top-of-the-board draft picks like Hedman and Stamkos but to the guys the scouting staff finds in later rounds who are then given a platform to shine in this organization. The stories of Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Tyler Johnson — all of whom were drafted no higher than 58th overall or, in Johnson’s case, not at all — each have their own little wrinkles. But the common theme is an amateur scouting department headed by Al Murray that focuses on what the player can do as opposed to what he can’t.

“We’re an organization that doesn’t discriminate,” Cooper said. “Big, tall, short, small — whatever it is. Ultimately we look for hockey players, and size doesn’t matter. Usually [players with the desired size and skill package] are taken in the first 10 picks and we haven’t had one of those in years, so you have to think outside the box. Our scouting staff and management have done a great job of that.

“And then on our side of things [with the big club], we give the guys a chance. Don’t believe it’s where you’re drafted [that dictates] whether you play. If you’re the one doing the right things, competing and showing results, it’s a meritocracy: You are the guys who will get called up and given a chance.”

Given all Stamkos has done in the game and the adversity he's faced in his career, it's hard not to pull for No. 91 to finally raise the Cup

Murray’s name came up in the car with Hedman as the big man gushed about the latest group of youngsters to take a step in Tampa. Hedman says fellow blue-liner Mikhail Sergachev — not a Murray find, mind you, but part of a great deal swung by Yzerman when he sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal three years ago — always had the offensive game to impress, but is now playing with more snarl and smarts. As for Cirelli, Hedman says it’s “phenomenal” what this player in just his second year as a regular has done going head-to-head with other teams’ top players night after night and thrusting himself into the Selke Trophy conversation about five years before guys usually get there. “You go into every season and you feel like we have a really good team again this year,” he says. “Our core group has been together for a long time, but you keep finding these gems in, not the first round, but the second, third, fourth round. It kind of reminds you of Detroit with [Henrik] Zetterberg, [Pavel] Datsyuk and those guys.”

Comparisons to the Zetterberg/Datsyuk era Wings of a decade ago certainly apply, but there might be even stronger ties between Tampa and the mid-1990s Detroit teams captained by Hedman’s old boss. Those Yzerman-led Red Wings were a classic “will they, won’t they?” squad — they’re also the team Tampa shares the single-season wins record with — until breaking through for their first Cup in 1997 and ultimately winning three in six seasons. Examine the parallels a little more and you start to wonder about links between Yzerman himself and Tampa Bay’s captain.

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‘Stevie Y’ was 31 years old when he lifted his first Cup, but probably felt like an octogenarian given how much he’d gone through to get there. Stamkos’s boyish face belies the fact he hit his 30th birthday in February. While Yzerman was rumoured to be on the trading block before Detroit summited the mountain, Stamkos’s future was the subject of league-wide speculation when he came within 48 hours of unrestricted free agency in 2016. Hockey lore has it that Detroit only got over the hump when Scotty Bowman convinced Yzerman to become a two-way player, though some guys from those Detroit teams will tell you that narrative is a bit overblown and that No. 19 already knew his way around the defensive zone. Stamkos, meanwhile, embraced the challenge of being a short-handed faceoff specialist in recent years, taking draws on his strong side. Hopefully Stamkos — who took things slow in this summer training camp due to a lower-body injury sustained upon his return to the ice — gets many more Cup cracks in his 30s. But if you need further proof of time’s marching nature, No. 91 is already halfway through that eight-year deal he inked with Yzerman. “Everyone knows how valuable Stammer is on and off the ice,” Hedman says. “He’s our captain, he’s the one who really leads us. He’s the guy. He’s just become such a well-rounded player. He [also] had a personal high in points last year [98] and I think that kind of got forgotten.”

It feels to me like Stamkos could really be our next, “win it for _____” guy, though the skeptical look on Hedman’s face when I float the idea tells me we might not be aligned here. Maybe I just picked the wrong person to draw a comparison to when I noted a lot of fans were pulling for 32-year-old Alex Ovechkin to get his ring in 2018. Perhaps a star player on the team ‘Ovie’ beat to get over the hump didn’t see it that way. Nevertheless, given all Stamkos has done (a two-time Rocket Richard winner, second only to Ovechkin in goals scored over the past decade) and everything he’s been through (robbed of an Olympic chance in 2014 by a broken leg, the blood clot in 2015–16, missing 65 games the next year with a knee injury) how could a non-partisan not root for this guy?

Had I been smarter, I wouldn’t have used Ovechkin as my example, but rather Yzerman back in the day, or another guy from a team that never went all the way, San Jose’s Joe Thornton. No matter, I can see Hedman’s look shift from suspicion to the grin of anticipation one gets when sitting on a good response and just waiting for the other person to stop rambling. “Well I hope he wins one, because that means I win one,” he says.

Feels like there’d be some justice for a few people in that.

Photo Credits

Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images; Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images; Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images; Adam Pantozzi/NHLI via Getty Images.