Lightning’s Victor Hedman becomes unbelievable after getting unshackled

The defenseman is realizing his potential with a phenomenal breakout season in Tampa Bay. All it took was a little confidence between the ears and a lot of freedom from his coach on the ice

Players don’t get to choose which of their peers are drafted around them, but in his early NHL years, you had to feel for Victor Hedman. The Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman was sandwiched between John Tavares and Matt Duchene in the 2009 draft and when the Swedish blueliner didn’t become a star right away, the pressure was on.

Now in his fifth season with the Bolts, Hedman is taking over. He led the team in ice time and shorthanded points, and is fifth in team scoring with 45 points in 63 games.

“His confidence is through the roof, you can totally tell,” said goalie Ben Bishop. “It’s just one of those things where defensemen take a bit longer. He’s playing tremendous and has been a big reason why we’ve done so well lately.”

Hedman, 23, has also blossomed thanks to the coaching of Jon Cooper. The defenseman had 20 points during the truncated lockout season, which was about his yearly average prior to Cooper’s arrival. Even Hedman believes he’s hit another level.

“It feels like it,” he said. “For me, it was just about getting confident and the system we’re playing under coach Cooper has really benefitted my game. Getting confidence from the coaching staff that believes in you… it’s a lot of fun.”

In the new system, Tampa’s defensemen are more involved in offensive situations. Whether it was due to the personnel on the ice or his game strategy, previous bench boss Guy Boucher never got much scoring from his blueline. But Cooper is allowing Hedman to create chances.

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“That’s my type of game, a two-way game,” Hedman said. “That’s the type of player I want to be.”

Even better for Tampa is the fact the Lightning have more talent coming up behind Hedman, including gifted rookie Mark Barberio, who is watching his blueline peer and learning on the job.

“What I’ve liked is the way he’s skating with the puck,” Barberio said. “He’s not afraid to take charge. There’s times where he just breaks it out himself and he doesn’t need to make a pass because he’s got such great wheels.”

Though Tavares and Duchene were in Sochi for Canada, Hedman was a noticeable snub from Sweden. But with his 6-foot-6, 223-pound frame and ability to score, the Bolts won’t take him for granted – especially if he helps them to a deep playoff run.

This feature originally appeared in the March 24 issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.