Why Victor Hedman Is Back and Better Than Ever
The injury bug won’t leave the Tampa Bay Lightning alone. They’re used to playing without Nikita Kucherov—at least in the regular season—but then it claimed Brayden Point in late November. Meanwhile, second-pairing defenseman Erik Cernak has dipped in and out of the lineup. Let’s not forget that their entire third line from a year ago signed elsewhere in the offseason too.
Surely, this attrition must catch up eventually…right? Well, it hasn’t yet. Jon Cooper’s men are a sparkling 19-6-4 through 29 games. How are they not only hanging on but also vying for the highest points percentage in the NHL?
While Tampa Bay’s forward corps grapples with health issues, the club’s No. 1 defenseman finally looks like himself again after undergoing knee surgery in the summer. His performance visibly suffered in 2020-21, as for the first time in ages, his 5-on-5 play was mediocre at best. During his shifts, Tampa Bay conceded more high-danger chances than it enjoyed and broke even in goals. He barely contributed beyond the power play.
Thankfully, those showings are way off in the rear view. Hedman is skating much better and back to delivering a tremendous three-zone, all-situations impact.
It starts with his mobility. As a gambler by nature, he walks a fine line between educated guesses and hopeless shots in the dark. Last season, there were moments when a hobbled Hedman looked downright foolish because he would get caught in no man’s land. He couldn’t reach his spot in time. This season, his quicker pace is allowing him to cover much more ground and tilt the ice for the Lightning on a nightly basis. The 31-year-old has a unique ability to put opponents on their heels with his blend of size, speed and skill:
If you need further proof of the renewed confidence he has in his wheels, he’s gone from 62nd in rush attempts among defensemen to fourth in 2021-22. There isn’t a trace of apprehension to be found in his game. Tampa Bay gets a stop, and he immediately turns on the jets to join the attack. This isn’t your average player adding numbers to the offense either. This is a 6’6”, 241-pound freight train barreling down the ice. Defenders are truly baffled by this sight—and Hedman compounds their confusion by keeping them guessing. He’s just as likely to drop the puck off and drive the center lane as he is to carry it down the boards and look for an incisive setup. He generates an incredible amount of room for his teammates.
Moreover, once zone time is established, he displays a great sense of when to activate from the blue line. He lulls his defender to sleep and then flies past him to obtain quality shots on goal. If Hedman gains inside position on you, it’s over.
Of course, he facilitates the Lightning’s offense with his pinpoint breakout passes as well:
His poise, touch and accuracy are superb. He consistently hits his teammates in stride, which is vital for a group that excels at top speed. They don’t have to wait on the puck. Whether he’s lugging it up the ice or connecting on crisp stretch passes, Hedman ensures that they can get to work as quickly as possible.
From there, his attacking instincts shine. Though he is indeed a freak of nature from a physical standpoint, he’s also a savvy decision-maker and talented offensive blueliner. The play seldom dies on his stick because he’s always cooking up his next pass. It’s not like opponents are going to poke the puck off him. He has the frame and calm demeanor to hang on until the very last second for a good opportunity to materialize.
Better yet, he’s a legitimate dual threat from the point. When he has any space at all, his first priority is claiming the middle of the ice and selling his shot. It’s one hell of a shot too, so teams are forced to respect it. Naturally, this frees up threats on the flanks.
Hedman is perhaps the best blueliner in the world at balancing his shooting and passing:
Opponents simply don’t know what’s coming. This has proven very fruitful for the Lightning, as he ranks second among defensemen in scoring and first in even-strength production. He has as many even-strength points in 29 games as he did in 54 contests last season. He’s never produced at this rate before.
Oh, and we can’t ignore his defense. He’s not quite a lockdown defender, but he breaks the opposition’s rhythm through sheer size and anticipation. Much like on offense, he flusters players with his long stick, great skating and keen hockey sense:
When he does make a poor read, his knack for recovery is absurd. Now that he has his legs again, he’s seemingly everywhere at once and impacting every phase of the game. He quarterbacks the man advantage. He logs decent minutes on the penalty kill. He’s an even-strength monster. He plays nearly 25 minutes per game and ranks sixth in scoring chance share (54.6 SCF%), first in high-danger chance share (60.0 HDCF%), first in expected goal share (58.5 xGF%) and sixth in actual goal share (61.2 GF%). That 58.5 xGF% is the single highest mark of his career.
Hedman has never had less help, yet he’s never tipped the scales so far in Tampa Bay’s favor.