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Victor Hedman quietly grows into cornerstone of Lightning's defense

After his star turn in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, Victor Hedman has become the cornerstone of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s defense and one of the NHL’s best players.

During their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning established themselves as an elite team in the NHL, one filled with young, explosive talent. Driving Tampa Bay’s success, allowing its offense to flourish, was the play of defenseman Victor Hedman.

Hedman, 24, can be overshadowed by forwards Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, the Lightning’s high-octane offensive stars. He does not play with the flash of Johnson or the power of Stamkos, the grace of Palat or the fire of Killorn. But in the playoffs, Hedman provided crucial stability and structure on defense, which allowed the offense to flow and helped to shield goalie Ben Bishop. At both ends, Hedman anchored the team, turning a goal-scoring juggernaut into a more balanced machine.

“This is his coming out party,” coach Jon Cooper said during the Final. “He’s a phenomenal kid, he works his tail off and he deserves this. [Stamkos is] our leader up front, [Hedman is] our leader on the back end.”

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Hedman, the second pick in the 2009 draft behind Islanders center John Tavares, has slowly but steadily improved since entering the league as an 18-year-old. Despite playing big minutes from the beginning he didn’t hit his stride as an all-around defenseman until the 2013–14 season, when he scored 13 goals and chipped in 42 assists, both career bests.

Now established on the blue line, the 6' 6", 233-pound Hedman is not only the cornerstone of Tampa Bay’s defense, he is also one of the best players in the league. “I want to try to contribute on both ends of the ice,” Hedman said during the Final. “This is the most fun I’ve had playing hockey.”

Hedman’s passion and confidence was evidenced by his breakout 2015 postseason. He had 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) and was +11 while playing almost 24 minutes per game. But while his offensive play was impressive, it was his play on defense that really drove the Lightning’s success.

Indeed, without two virtuoso performances by Hedman and the defense against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, Tampa Bay may never have gotten the chance to play for the Stanley Cup. In Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, with the series tied at two games apiece, the Lightning allowed 26 mostly harmless shots en route to a 2–0 victory. After a New York win in Tampa Bay, all the hype before the series finale at the Garden was about Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who had won six consecutive Game 7s. Instead, Hedman and the Lightning put on a defensive master class, shutting out and shutting down New York 2–0.

“He’s a top tier defenseman in this league,” Cooper said of Hedman. “It’s why we’re here.”

Hedman's game is silky. In the third period of Tampa Bay’s 3–2 victory in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks, he took a feed from winger Ryan Callahan at center ice, swooshed into the zone, dangled around a defenseman and put the puck on the tape of the stick of forward Cedric Paquette, who scored the winning goal. Hedman isn’t a bone-crusher—he’s more Nicklas Lidstrom than Zdeno Chara, more Erik Karlsson than Dustin Byfuglien—and his grace in his own end is matched by his skill in the opposing one.

“He’s really awesome, really big for our team,” defenseman and fellow Swede Anton Stralman said before the Final started. “He can move. He can shoot. He can play defense. Be physical. He’s got the big frame. I’m sure not everybody’s seen how good a player he is, but he’s going to show up in the Final.”

Hedman and Stralman were matched well as a new defensive pair, the steadiness of the latter allowing the former to take offensive chances. Hedman, despite missing 18 games this season with a hand injury, still scored 10 goals, with 28 assists. Matched up every night against opposing teams’ best players, he was an impressive +10.

The pair’s reliability on the back end also allowed for the dynamic cross-ice, zig-zagging work of the Triplets (Palat, Johnson and Kucherov), a line that made big impacts in the playoffs against the Red Wings, the Canadiens and the Rangers. More often than not, a Lightning goal began with Hedman starting a breakout, or Hedman finding an open man.

“Just his ability to take over the game with his size and his speed, it’s pretty rare to have that combination,” Stamkos says. “He has the ability to play physical when he needs to. But a lot of the time, people don’t realize he doesn’t have to be [physical] because he’s always in the right position.”

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Hedman has come a long way from the 10-year-old boy who switched from goalie to defense because his parents promised him a new helmet if he did. (“[My mom] was just afraid I would get hurt or something,” Hedman says.). Just after his 18th birthday, Hedman suited up in the Swedish Elite League alongside Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg, who like Hedman, hails from the town of Ornskoldsvik.

Hedman and Stamkos are the only two players remaining from the Tampa Bay’s run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, when Hedman was in just his second professional season and Stamkos was in just his third. Hedman had only six postseason assists that year as the Lightning lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins.

“Now I feel like I’ve been here for a long time,” Hedman told New Jersey’s Bergen Record. “It’s just me and [Stamkos] left from that year and I feel I want to take responsibility, I want to be a leader and I want to be a difference maker on the ice.”

For 26 games this spring, Hedman proved his worth as the unassuming, yet vital, member of a young Tampa Bay core that is high on talent and achievement. More Cup runs may be coming, and it will be Hedman, playing his smooth game, quietly leading the way.

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