The amount of talent that Tampa Bay has been missing from its lineup is staggering. Heck, sometimes it seems as though the Lightning have more top-end guys missing than other teams have period. But with Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ryan Callahan and Jason Garrison all out, the team has managed to stay in the playoff hunt far down the stretch. A big reason why? Defenseman Victor Hedman.
Along with Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat, Hedman has been a huge driver for the Bolts, putting up excellent possession numbers and ranking second in team scoring with 70 points through 77 games following Thursday's three-assist performance in a huge win over the Maple Leafs.
In any other year, the big Swede has a Norris practically lined up. But in a year where Ottawa's Erik Karlsson could win both the Norris and perhaps even the Hart, and Brent Burns had the top blueliner buzz for most of the campaign, Hedman hasn't really gotten the headlines he deserves.
"I have no idea if he'll be one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, but in my three or four years with the team, a lot of our success has been predicated on how Victor has played," said coach Jon Cooper. "He's the engine that drives the bus back there. He's a phenomenal athlete who can do so many things well. When he's on, it's really good for us."
Not that Hedman is looking at individual accomplishments right now. His Lightning squad went from pre-season Stanley Cup favorites to maybe missing the playoffs altogether. And while injuries and some bad luck early on probably doomed them, Hedman's not really hearing that.
"The standard for this team is to make the playoffs and it's a disappointment if we don't," he said. "You can focus on the injuries, but we're not a team that makes excuses for ourselves."
OK, fine. But the degree of difficulty was really ratcheted up this time. Not only were there health issues, but this team (wisely, in retrospect), shipped off Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle at the trade deadline, as GM Steve Yzerman hedged his bets toward the future. Had Stamkos not missed so much time (he's still not back from a major knee injury), perhaps the Lightning would have clinched home-ice advantage in the weak Atlantic Division, but that's not where we're at. Instead, as the bruises piled up, the Lightning was forced to ice a patchwork lineup that included several inexperienced defenders. Jake Dotchin has been paired with Hedman and learned a lot from the Swedish veteran.
"If you put anyone with him, he'll help them," Dotchin said. "He has a lot of gifts -- skates well, sees the ice well and he's a leader."
Is it fair to say that Hedman is probably a little underrated around the hockey landscape right now?
"I would say so," Dotchin said. "He's the full package and 'underrated' is a good word. When you play with him you notice all those little things, whether it's talking on the ice or using his legs well. His stride is so long and powerful, he doesn't seem to get into trouble very often and if he does, he can get back to make that play to be a good defender."
While Dotchin has played his first NHL games this season, two other relative youngsters - Joel Vermin and Luke Witkowski - have both eclipsed their previous highs for games played with Tampa, with all three graduating from AHL Syracuse. Hedman believes that leading by example is a good way to help the kids out.
"For me I try to play hard and play every game to the best of my ability," he said. "I like to take control of the game and play under pressure."
That Norris Trophy may not happen this season, but Hedman does seem really close and has for a couple years. More than any other award in the NHL, the Norris seems to evoke controversy among fans and voters, as it often seems to be a certain player's "turn" to win it. Last year, Drew Doughty took the trophy over Karlsson. And while Doughty was an excellent candidate, he also hadn't won before, while Karlsson had. Earlier on this season, it felt like Burns was the first-timer whose time had come, but Karlsson's late efforts may just prove too dominant to ignore. And don't forget: Shea Weber has never won it and may have missed his window at this point.
In the meantime, Hedman has a couple more games to go, and making them count is important. No matter what the result in the end, he has enjoyed the pressure.
"It's kinda like a playoff run," Hedman said. "You're going to have some big wins and some tough losses, so you have to control your emotions. We've done a good job of that."