Just months after being selected as the No. 2 overall pick in 2009 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, defenseman Victor Hedman has slid in not just as an NHL regular, but a key player on the team. In just his first season, the 6’6, 230-pound blueliner is averaging 23:54 minutes of ice time on a nightly basis, impressing both his coaches and teammates.
"We’re playing him like a top-four defenseman," said Lightning head coach Rock Tocchet. "He’s working hard, he’s doing everything that we’ve asked of him . He’s still going to make mistakes like anybody, but he’s a big body and he’s going to be a hell of a defenseman here for a lot of years for us."
The Swede’s smooth transition to the NHL has been impressive but not surprising, especially to his teammates.
"He’s played two years in the Swedish Elite League with men," said sophomore forward Steve Stamkos. "He’s a skill player obviously. He has a great combination of speed, size and skill so he really doesn’t need too much help especially from a forward like me. He’s pretty steady and he’s obviously got Mattias Ohlund there to help him out — a fellow countryman and a guy who’s been in this league for a long time and been a very good player. I think Heddy’s doing a great job and we’re excited to see him continue to grow."
But earning a spot in the NHL can be a challenge – even for players who have had success in the top European leagues and Hedman has seen firsthand what those challenges and adjustments are.
"All the guys are much better over here," said Hedman. "It’s more physical here too, I mean playing against [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry — you have to play against those kind of guys every night. You have to be on top of your game every game, every night. That’s a big adjustment but I think it’s fun too, to play against all the best players in the world. It’s a big adjustment but it’s big competition too to challenge yourself against those guys."
While the transition on the ice has been smooth for the MoDo defenseman, most players will tell you that the transition off the ice may be even tougher, but Hedman has had help. He came over from Sweden with his girlfriend who has assisted him in the transition in his daily life and Ohlund has also taken him under his wing. Hedman shared how Ohlund’s presence has helped.
"He’s a Swedish guy too so we can talk our own language," said Hedman, "and he has been over for ten years so he’s helped me a lot but all the guys around here have helped me a lot so everyone has made this adjustment for me pretty smooth so far."
And besides having the comforts and familiarity of having some fellow countrymen around, Hedman has also benefited from having 2008’s top pick Stamkos in the locker room as well. Stamkos has seen both the highs and lows of being a rising NHL star — from being publicly criticized last year for allegedly not being ready to play in the NHL to being publicly praised for his skills this year.
Hedman himself said that Stamkos’ presence has been helpful.
"There is a lot of pressure on you especially from yourself. Everyone has helped, but of course Stamkos was in this position last year so he knows [what it’s like]."
"I think confidence is a big key," said Stamkos. "It was an up and down season for me last year. I was able to learn a lot from the veteran guys on our team and the second half went well, World Championships went well with Marty [St. Louis] so the confidence was definitely at the highest it’s been at this level coming into this season. I was confident coming in that my hard work would be paying off. As for Hedman, he doesn’t really need any advice from me. I just told him to have fun and learn all you can this year and I just can’t wait to see him blossom into an NHL superstar."
And that has been the word on Hedman. That although the 18-year-old is already logging close to 24 minutes a game with five assists and an even rating in 19 games, the best is still yet to come.
"He showed that the selection of No. 2 overall is quite warranted," said Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle whose team recently faced Hedman. "For a young guy to play with the poise and move around the ice like he did, it’s an opportunity to see the birth of a young player — a young player who should continue to develop and make more strides and become a real dominant defenseman. But it’s his first year and there’s a lot of hurdles that a young player will have to go over before you can classify him that, but he’s well on his way."
Hedman’s coach Rick Tocchet has noted that Hedman is improving and adjusting at a rapid rate. Stating that the blueliner’s progress in just a few months since the season began he’s improved by leaps and bounds. And while there is always room for improvement, the potential and raw ability Hedman possesses is also quite notable. The big Swede has been compared to another giant of a defenseman, Chris Pronger, and although he’s not at that level yet, former Norris Trophy winner Randy Carlyle, Pronger’s former coach can see the skill that may in fact mean that Hedman one day blossoms into one of the game’s all-time greats.
"Well, the first thing is his mobility and his size," said Carlyle. "He uses his size and his mobility to a huge advantage. He’s got a very, very good stick. He doesn’t need to be in perfect position with his reach and size to say deflect a puck off a players stick he utilizes that first and foremost. A good stick is what special players [like] Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, you talk about Rob Blake, you look at Dan Boyle, those are players who utilize their stick and defend and knock pucks away on a consistent basis — Nicklas Lidstrom is maybe if not the best at knocking pucks out of the air and knocking pucks off people’s sticks and Hedman seems to have demonstrated that with the little bit of the hockey game that I was able to see of him."
And while the potential is there, it will take time to truly live up to that Pronger comparisons.
"I think it’s going to take a while to be at that level – he’s a good, young player," said Teemu Selanne, Pronger’s former teammate. "I think he’s going to be really good in this league but I think there’s no comparison yet."