Hedman has ups, downs in first NHL season

St. Petersburg Times (Florida) 
Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — After a season watching Victor Hedman play, fellow Lightning defenseman Mattias Ohlund is convinced he can be a star.

And perhaps more than that.

“He’s got a ton of potential,” Ohlund said. “What is he, 6-5 (actually, 6 feet 6), 230 pounds? And he’s 19 and moves and skates so well. He’s going to dominate in this league in a few years.”

But not quite yet.

For Hedman, his rookie season has been like riding a wave machine, with swells that have lifted him to great heights and dips that have shown how far he has to go.

Consider that the No. 2 overall draft pick of 2009 ran the power play out of training camp and played more than 20 minutes in 20 of his first 23 games. His end-to-end rush Jan. 6 against the Sabres was a classic and finished with a crisp wrist shot that beat all-world goalie Ryan Miller short-side high.

But Hedman has not scored in 33 games since, and three of his seven assists in that stretch were in one game. Add a seven-game skid from Feb. 13 to March 11 in which he seemed like a turnover waiting to happen and was minus-8, and you understand the term “work in progress.”

“My play wasn’t at the standard I wanted through the season,” Hedman said. “Obviously, you learn from it and, hopefully, take it into next season.”

That is not to say Hedman is a disappointment.

His 20 points, on four goals and 16 assists in 73 games, entered Wednesday tied for fifth among rookie defensemen. His 21:01 average ice time was fourth, and he is minus-3 on a team outscored by 47.

It’s just that Hedman set the bar so high that when growing pains occurred, they were magnified.

Some of it was inevitable. Hedman never played more than 44 games in a season in his native Sweden, so he was bound to hit a wall. And he played so well early, and Tampa Bay’s defense was so sketchy, that coach Rick Tocchet admitted he might have force-fed Hedman too quickly.

Hedman, who could play tonight against the Senators at the St. Pete Times Forum after missing three games with a hip flexor injury, said it all is part of the learning process.

“Now I know what it takes to play 82 games,” he said.

“There’s no easy games. Every team has good players, and you have to keep your head up. The games change down the stretch. They become more physical with teams battling for a playoff spot. I need to bring it to another level. I didn’t do that the way I wanted, but I’ll learn from it.”

Tocchet has his own list of improvements for Hedman.

“Strength is the big thing,” he said. “A good summer of training is really going to help him. He knows he has to get a little grittier. And his puck-handling has to get a little better He’s got to try different sticks. That will help his game tremendously.”

Tocchet chuckled. He knew how he sounded, so he hit reset.

“He can be a very good hockey player,” Tocchet said. “His skating ability, his reach, all that stuff. Yeah, we’re lucky to have Victor Hedman. That’s a great draft pick.”

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Ohlund said. “He wants to learn, and he’s got a confidence and drive that is unusual for a 19-year-old.”

And the right sensibility.

“Next season, you start from zero again,” Hedman said. “It’s time to prove that you are ready to play and you have developed throughout the summer.”

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