Victor Hedman comes from the Modo hockey factory in Ornskoldsvik, northern Sweden, a town of about 30,000 with six indoor rinks that first sent Anders Hedberg to Winnipeg in the 1970s.
Followed later by Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and the Sedins on NHL journeys of their own.
Hedman is the best defencemen to ever come out of there, clearly. A towering presence at 6-foot-6 who makes it all look so easy at both ends of the ice, much like another Swede, Niklas Lidstrom, as we’re seeing in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s playoff ride.
No one is saying he’s in the same stratosphere at the moment as Lidstrom, the mighty seven-time Norris Trophy winner, but Hedman has been the best player night in, night out, on a team two wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.
With apologies to the pyrotechnics of Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point — 1-2 in playoff points — or the seamless work of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has played every single minute — nearly 1,500 of them — of Tampa Bay’s time in these playoffs, Hedman should be the Conn Smythe playoff MVP if Tampa Bay wins it all.
You can’t win a Stanley Cup without a true No. 1 defenceman, of which there might be a dozen legitimate specimens in a 31-team league. And Hedman is all of that, skating and passing and breaking up plays in ho-hum fashion during his 26 minutes of ice time a night.
In Game 3 on Wednesday, he casually broke up a breakaway chance by Dallas forward Denis Gurianov early on, avoiding a penalty, using his huge wingspan to lift Gurianov’s stick. He made the bullet pass that found Steven Stamkos along the right boards for his terrific goal — the only one that didn’t beat Anton Khudobin blocker side. He also scored the game-winner on a power-play wrister early in the second, against the grain, after some solid work from Ondrej Palat after Dallas had won the faceoff. Hedman had three points in his team’s 5-2 win.
The goal was his 10th, which puts him just two back of Hall of Famer Paul Coffey’s all-time best of 12 in a single playoff season, 35 years ago with the Edmonton Oilers.
Another Hall of Famer, Brian Leetch, had 11 for the 1994 New York Rangers, but they are the only two better defencemen. The 10th goal beat Bobby Orr (1970) and Brad Park (1978), who both had nine. Yeah, they’re in the Hockey Hall of Fame, too.
And all 10 of the Tampa Bay assistant captain’s goals have come in the playoff portion, none in the three-game round-robin lead-in. Ten goals in 19 playoff games, seven even-strength. Only Point (9) has more five-on-five goals in the playoffs.
“I like to contribute offensively, but I think Kuch (Kucherov) said it after Game 2 we’re not here for personal stats. We’re here for one thing, winning the Stanley Cup,” said Hedman, who nevertheless has 20 points, which gives him 68 in 106 career playoff games to sit tied with Serge Savard.
“When I get the puck on my stick, I’m making a pass or shooting for goals but at the end of the day, it’s helping the team win and if it’s a goal or a blocked shot, doesn’t matter,” he said.
Anytime you have a defenceman who can play close to half the game, against the opposition’s best players, it’s a comforting feeling because you know you’re safe.
“Definitely a luxury back there,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who cut him back in Game 3 because the Lightning led 4-1 halfway through. “It was nice to only get him 21 (minutes).
“Anytime you can give him a bit of time off, if 21 minutes is really time off, but to give him six, seven minutes fewer than normal, hopefully that’ll play dividends as we come down to the end.”
Tampa Bay defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk knew Hedman was good when Shattenkirk played for the New York Rangers, but now he’s seeing Hedman on his side.
“I certainly had high standards for him before this season, for a long time. I’ve always thought he’s one of the best players in our league,” Shattenkirk said. “When you look at the best players in the league, they want these challenges.
“And Victor has the drive to be the best and wants the opportunities to prove it. He rises to the occasion in the toughest moments. And, of course, there’s his ability. To play the game at his size and be able to skate the way he can, is unbelievable.”
Hedman, who is plus-17 in the post-season, better than anybody else, was gob-smacked when Stamkos scored after he avoided an ill-timed hip-check from Esa Lindell to roll in on Khudobin, beating him over his shoulder.
“I lost track of it. I was expecting it to come around (the boards) and all of a sudden it’s in the back-of-the-net,” said Hedman. “You could see our reaction on the ice and on the bench, how much (Stamkos) means to us.”
It’s the same for Stamkos with Hedman, who is in his 11th season after being the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, behind John Tavares and in front of Matt Duchene.
“What Heddy’s taken on from a leadership point has been amazing and Kuch has been the best player in the world,” said Stamkos, who may be one and done, playing just five shifts and 2:47 of the first 13 and a half minutes in Game 3 before he couldn’t go any longer, having expressed discomfort following a defensive shift where he stopped hard. “And it’s been so much fun to be a part of it with them.”
On Twitter: @jimmathesonnhl
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