As every hockey player in the history of the world has done, Victor Hedman turned his personal accomplishment into a team triumph, because nobody is less impressed with themselves than hockey players, particularly Swedish ones. Said anyone on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster would have been a worthy recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. But in one of the closest votes in the history of the award, Hedman won out because he had an impact on the playoffs that almost no defenseman has ever had. (Full disclosure: Hedman was not my first choice for the award. As one of the 18 people privileged to vote, I chose Brayden Point No. 1, with Hedman second and Nikita Kucherov third. I would have had no quarrel with any one of the three winning.)
Hedman played more than 26 minutes a game. He scored 10 goals. He was on the ice against the opponents’ top lines. As the Lightning went through a conga line of defensemen, Hedman played with pretty much everybody and made them all look good. He was major component of a team that went from, as coach Jon Cooper called it, the greatest show on ice, to a lock-down, defense-first outfit. And in doing so, he joins a select group of Conn Smythe-winning defensemen that includes Serge Savard, Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Nicklas Lidstrom and Duncan Keith – and should also include Chris Pronger, who was robbed of the award in 2006. All of them are either in the Hockey Hall of Fame or will be and one day Hedman will almost certainly take his rightful place along with them.
When the Lightning lost captain Steven Stamkos prior to the first game of the playoffs, and it became apparent that Stamkos could not be counted upon to be healthy enough to play, Hedman knew it was up to him to go into beast mode. “Someone has got to replace those goals,” Hedman said. “I thought about it a lot during the break. ‘What can I do to improve my game?’ and that’s shooting the puck and some of them found the net. At the end of the day, this is not my trophy. This is everyone’s trophy. It’s as easy as that.”
Yeah, not really. In the end, it came down to a choice among Hedman, Point and Kucherov, with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy as a darkhorse. The Lightning were 11-0 when Point scored in the playoffs and they lost the two games he missed with injury. Kucherov established himself as one of the greatest all-time set-up men in NHL playoff history. But Hedman took this team that was without Stamkos and made it his own. “ ‘Heddy’ has grown as a leader and when ‘Stammer’ wasn’t able to be around, ‘Heddy’ stepped to the forefront,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Just to watch this guy grow, it’s just remarkable. He’s so deserving of the Conn Smythe and I know ‘Stammer’ couldn’t be happier for him.”
Stamkos and Hedman were picked one year and one pick apart when the Lightning were NHL bottom-feeders. The year after Hedman was drafted in 2009, Jeff Vinik bought the Lightning. He actually paid more for the Marriott Hotel across the street from the Amalie Arena than he did for the Lightning and the building they played in. A decade later, all three have reached the pinnacle. “We’re going to take this to our graves, we are so happy,” Hedman said. “We’re going to be Stanley Cup champs forever.”
As far as Stamkos is concerned, it’s a shame he couldn’t have been a bigger part of the story. He would have been a stud for Canada’s Olympic team in 2014, but had to miss the tournament because of a broken tibia. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Boston Bruins in 2011 – the year the Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup – Stamkos was hit in the head by a shot from Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk that limited his effectiveness. The Bruins won the game 1-0.
So, yes, Stamkos was thrilled for Hedman. The two had words as the Lightning were celebrating their triumph. Hedman didn’t recall what was said, but Stamkos did. “I think I told him I loved him a hundred times,” Stamkos said.