Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his goal during first period NHL Eastern Conference final playoff action against the New York Islanders, in Edmonton on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)
EDMONTON — Victor Hedman has always been more concerned with keeping the puck out of his own net than putting it in the other one.
As a kid, the Norris Trophy winner went through a phase where he preferred being a goalie to a skater. And at Hållängetskolan, the school Hedman attended growing up in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, and where he’s been honoured with a place on the ‘Wall of Fame,’ he’s remembered as a reluctant scorer.
The kids there played street hockey during every break between classes. Thomas Högström, a youth coach who worked at the school, recently told Viasat that Hedman would only play out when it was absolutely necessary.
“It was first to five and Victor always wanted to be a goalie,” Högström said in Swedish. “But he wanted to be told when there were five minutes left. If his team was up, he stayed in goal but if they were down he came out and played, and most of the time they came back and won it.
“So basically he loved to play goalie, but he loved winning more so sometimes he had to come out and score instead.”
In establishing himself as arguably the best all-around defenceman in the world these past few seasons, Hedman’s offensive game rarely garnered much attention. He’s no slouch in that area — only Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have amassed more points across the past five NHL seasons — but he hasn’t needed to score in order to be a force for the loaded Lightning.
Hedman has already scored seven goals, breaking Nicklas Lidstrom’s record for the most by a Swedish defenceman in one post-season. The only players who have ever recorded more in a playoff year also ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Paul Coffey, Brian Leetch, Bobby Orr, Brad Park, Ray Bourque and Denis Potvin.
While there may be some puck luck involved in Hedman’s breakthrough — he’s shooting 13 per cent across 17 playoff games, versus 6.8 per cent for his career — there is also intention behind it. The paused season gave him a chance to reflect on his play and he recognized an opportunity to be more aggressive in sending the puck toward the goal.
It’s no accident that his 3.18 shots per game and 7.12 attempts per game during these playoffs are both well above career norms. Or that some big goals have followed, including the double overtime winner to eliminate the Boston Bruins in Round 2.
“That’s absolutely something I’ve been thinking about,” Hedman said. “I’m looking to shoot as soon as I get the puck and when you do that other things will open, maybe later in a game or later in a series.
“You have to have some variation to what you’re doing but when you get a good look, you should shoot it.”
The change in approach is most evident when Hedman is part of the second power-play unit. While he might be inclined to defer to Nikita Kucherov or Brayden Point on PP1, he’s been letting it fly on the setup that often includes big Pat Maroon setting a screen at net front.
The Lightning like their defencemen to be active at 5-on-5 as well, giving them the green light to jump up in the rush and make plays. Even as a great puck possession team, they haven’t discouraged shots originating from the point either.
“It’s always been something we’ve harped on our ‘D’ quite a bit,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s a big part of our game plan, though, in these playoffs … When [Hedman’s] shooting the puck we’re in a better spot, and I think he realizes that.
After becoming a Norris Trophy nominee for a fourth straight year, Hedman was still looking for new ways to get more out of his unique blend of attributes.
His six-foot-six frame, long stick and sense of anticipation make it difficult for opponents to get anything done in the Lightning’s zone. Incredibly, Hedman has only been on the ice for four goals against in the 330-plus minutes he’s played at even strength this summer. Then there’s the fluid skating stride that allows him to jump into the rush and still recover in time to handle his defensive responsibilities.
The desire to score doesn’t come as naturally to Hedman as it does to other top players. He had one goal during Tampa’s run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, yet he was still the most important contributor to that team’s success in Cooper’s mind.
With the Lightning one win over the New York Islanders away from getting back to the Cup Final again, Hedman has added a new weapon to his arsenal.
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