Victor Hedman has never played more than 45 games in a regular season in his career, but assuming he plays every game for the rest of this one, he’ll finish the 2009-10 campaign with 79.
That’s a huge jump for anyone, let alone a young man who just celebrated his 19th birthday in December.
One of the common patterns for players coming over from Europe in their first season is they, in hockey vernacular, “hit the wall” about three-quarters of the way through the year. And even though the Tampa Bay Lightning’s rookie defenseman got a short respite in Mexico during the Olympic break, he is showing signs that the grind of the season might be getting to him.
After being a plus player through most of the season, Hedman is a minus-6 in his past seven games going into Friday’s Lightning game in Washington. More disturbing is that the 6-foot-6, 220-pound defenseman is struggling in his own zone and being knocked off the puck easier than before. In a 5-3 loss in Montreal Tuesday night, Hedman was bumped off the puck in the corner rather easily by 5-foot-7 Brian Gionta, which led to a Canadiens goal.
In the next game, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Hedman logged just 14:43 in ice time, his fourth-lowest total of the year, after regularly playing close to 20 minutes a game prior to that.
“It’s a good question,” said Lightning coach Rick Tocchet when asked whether Hedman was beginning to get worn down. “It’s a long season mentally and young guys go through little stretches. About two months ago, Steven (Stamkos) had about a week or 10-day stretch where he was a little worn down mentally, but since then he has been incredible. It’s a bit of a mental game for Victor right now. But it’s hard to play in the NHL.”
For his part, Hedman doesn’t feel as though he’s fatigued, but acknowledges he has struggled lately.
“I don’t feel tired at all,” Hedman said. “It’s more games than you’re used to, but it’s your work and it’s something you have to do. I’ve been slipping a little in the past couple of games and I just have to bring back my ‘A’ game. I know what I can do and I just have to bring it every night now.”
But that is part of the adjustment for a young player: realizing he has to bring a maximum output to every game for 82 games. Until this point in their careers, at almost every level they’ve played, many rookies have been able to still excel despite not playing their best because they were so much more naturally talented than their peers. But that’s not the case in the NHL.
“Everybody has bad games,” Hedman said. “But these games are critical.”
Of course, Hedman isn’t the only high-profile rookie who has faded as the season has worn on. While Tyler Myers, Matt Duchene and Niclas Bergfors have been reasonably consistent through the season and stand as a good bet to be the three finalists for the Calder Trophy, others have struggled.
John Tavares, who was taken first overall, one spot ahead of Hedman in June, was strong early in the season, but recently scored his first goal in 18 games and has just three in his past 35. Michael Del Zotto, James van Riemsdyk and Ryan O’Reilly also had solid starts, but have faded since.
That’s not to say Hedman hasn’t done some good things this season. With a few notable exceptions, he has been playing about 20 minutes a game and continues to learn his craft. Tocchet has no long-term worries about him.
“He’s a 19-year-old defenseman and he’s just got to clean up his coverage in front of our net,” Tocchet said. “That’s something that he’s really struggled with the past six or seven games. You get in a stretch where every time you make a mistake it’s in your net and that hurts your confidence. I don’t care who you are.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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