CHICAGO – One of the great questions developing in this Stanley Cup final is simple: What the heck were the folks who put together Sweden’s Olympic team thinking last year?
They left off Victor Hedman, the Tampa Bay Lightning behemoth who has become the talk of the series. Seriously. Said he wasn’t good enough to play defense for his country at age 23 after five years of NHL growth.
They took old friend Henrik Tallinder, who was well past his prime. They also took Vancouver’s Alex Edler, Detroit’s Jonathan Ericsson and Chicago’s Johnny Oduya, nice players all of them. But hardly stars like selections such as Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall or even Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Or Hedman.
It should be noted the Swedes earned silver, losing to Canada in the gold medal game. So it’s not like they collapsed without Hedman. Still, it’s hard to believe he could have been left off the roster and others chosen ahead of him.
So if that was a defining career moment for Hedman, was he motivated by the snub?
“I don’t know if ‘motivation’ is the right word,” Hedman said Tuesday in United Center. “You’re obviously disappointed to not make a team that you fight for. At the same time we had a game that night in Winnipeg. It was kind of easy for me to switch focus to that, focus on Tampa. But, you know, I always try to improve as a player obviously every year, try to bring my game to another level. I don’t think ‘motivation’ is the right word. But you’re always disappointed not to represent your country on such a big stage.”
Hedman is doing just fine under what are probably the brightest lights in hockey.
He had two spectacular assists Monday in the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Game Three, has four helpers for the series and is averaging 26 minutes, 10 seconds of ice time over the three games. The Lightning lead the series, two games to one, and Hedman has emerged as a legitimate Conn Smythe Trophy threat, when you consider the way he and partner Anton Stralman have shut down the Chicago offense.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have one point in the series, an assist by Toews in Game Two. The Blackhawks haven’t scored first in any game and have led for less than seven minutes total thus far.
At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, Hedman was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, right behind the Islanders’ choice of John Tavares. But it takes a long time for defensemen to find their stride in the NHL. Hedman has averaged 11 goals and 46 points over the last two seasons and looks like a future Norris Trophy candidate.
Veteran NHL observers see the progression of Hedman into an elite defenseman in the league. Sabres fans have to be thinking this is how Rasmus Ristolainen can develop some day, as a physical puck-mover with tremendous passing skills.
“I try to take advantage of my speed obviously,” Hedman said. “Try to take what’s there, ... not to force things too much and use my strengths as a player.”
“There’s no doubt with his size and skating ability, he’s been making plays and he’s been offensive,” said Toews.
“In a lot of ways, he’s a guy like Duncan Keith who more times than not makes the players he’s out there with a lot better. He’s a catalyst in his own zone and in the offensive zone.”
Hedman has a power game, keen instincts, good vision all over the ice. The play of the series so far is easy. You want ridiculous stretch passes? Find a video of Ryan Callhan’s goal early in Game Three.
Hedman slapped his pass on a diagonal from his own goal line to Ben Bishop’s left all the way to Callahan at the Chicago blueline on the right wing. That had to be about 130-140 feet. And he did it knowing the Blackhawks were on a slow line change.
“I just asked him right now when I saw him after the game: ‘How do you find those plays, man?’ ’’ Stralman said. “He’s a tremendous player. He just kind of shook it off.”
Hedman did it again on Cedric Paquette’s winner with 3:11 left, going strong along the wall in the Chicago zone and putting the puck in the slot for Paquette to redirect it home.
Hedman’s first four years in the NHL were pedestrian, hardly worthy of a No. 2 pick. But when Jon Cooper became coach in 2013, Hedman instantly started earning his coach’s trust.
“Part of growth, especially defensemen in this league, you have to play in the league for a while,” Cooper said. “Guys don’t just come in and run the show in the league, especially as defensemen. Victor has just blossomed the last couple years. I think it was his skating that set him apart and his size, but he’s really, really learned how to defend. I think everything starts with him defending.
“He doesn’t spend a bunch of time in his own zone. I think just the way we play the game and our structure is kind of tailor-made for him. To be honest, he’s pretty much got free rein with me. He’s earned that trust.”
Teammate Steven Stamkos didn’t necessarily agree with Cooper’s coming-out party assessment. This is what Hedman does on a daily basis, he explained, but the attention is now far more concentrated.
“Coming in as an 18-year-old defenseman is the probably the toughest position to come into with such high expectations,” Stamkos said. “You see him mature as a player, as a person, evolve as a leader on this team. This is a big stage, a lot of attention. People are starting to see Victor on a world stage now. In this room, we knew he was that player all along.
“He’s been an absolute beast out there. Very rare do you see the combination of size and speed and smarts. You need really good defensemen at this time of the year. You look across and see Chicago with the guys they have. Well, the guys on our team are just now getting that notoriety because of the stage we’re on.”