By DAMIAN CRISTODERO St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
BRANDON — In theory, watching each of last season’s games to identify areas to improve was a noble undertaking by Victor Hedman.
In practice, well, let’s just say the Lightning defenseman could have found more entertaining ways to spend his time.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I just closed my eyes and pretended it wasn’t me.”
A harsh assessment from the No. 2 overall draft pick of 2009 who, as an 18-year-old rookie, had plenty of moments that made you say, “Wow.”
But there were more missteps, and after a good start, the big Swede’s game deteriorated.
Hedman, eyes wide open, said he replayed on his home computer each of his 74 games to find reasons why.
“You want to prove to the team you’re a good player,” he said. “That’s why they took me second overall.”
Hedman, 19, is a specimen.
At 6 feet 6, 230 pounds, he skates beautifully, loves to join the rush and has good hands.
His 20 points, with four goals, were seventh among rookie defensemen, his average 20:50 of ice time fourth and his 79 penalty minutes first.
In a Jan. 6 game at Buffalo, he went end to end with the puck and beat Ryan Miller, one of the game’s best goaltenders, with a high, short-side wrist shot.
“Unlimited potential to be a top defenseman in this league,” Lightning goalie Mike Smith said.
But Hedman did not score again and had just seven assists in his last 34 games – and three came in one game.
His defense suffered, too. In seven games from Feb. 13 to March 11, he was minus-8, sparking speculation he hit a physical and mental wall.
“It seemed like I was overplaying situations and trying to do too much,” Hedman said last week at the Ice Sports Forum as he prepared for Friday’s opening of training camp.
“I was too aggressive in some situations. Sometimes, I was pinching (into the offensive zone) at the wrong time and I would give them a two-on-one. It seemed like they scored every time I made a mistake.”
The solution: “Make easy decisions and not be too aggressive in some situations,” he said. “Make simple plays in my own end and be on the right side (of the ice).”
Hedman said he also better understands what it takes to get through the grind of an 82-game season. He never played more than 44 games in a season in the Swedish elite league, 30 fewer than 2009-10.
“I felt like I was in good shape, but it was more like my head was tired,” Hedman said. “It was more the mental part.
“It was a good lesson. You have to be 100 percent focused physically and mentally. You have to get your rest between games. You feel more alert. You feel like your legs are flying all the time. I want to feel that feeling for 82 games.”
The belief is playing defense is so difficult, it generally takes about 300 NHL games to really understand the position. Playing for a struggling team, as was Tampa Bay last season, with the corresponding pressure on the back line, steepens the learning curve.
“The team is going to be overall better, and that should help him,” center Steven Stamkos said. “But for him, he’s going to be more comfortable. I know I felt more comfortable my second year (when he went from 23 to 51 goals). He knows his teammates. He knows his surroundings. He’s going to be good. We’re not worried about him.”
Especially after Hedman’s version of summer school.
“It’s great,” general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I’m glad to hear he has that much interest and wants to get better.”
“It’s going to help me get back to basics and play my game,” Hedman said. “That’s why they took me in the first place.”
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