Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
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With 77 days left until the 2019-20 season kicks off, here’s a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s No. 77, Victor Hedman and his Norris Trophy-winning season of 2017-18.
Hedman Before the Norris Trophy
Hedman was taken second overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft and cracked the starting lineup in his first season. He was only 19 but still had 20 points and averaged almost 21 minutes per game. His next three seasons were much of the same. However, at age 23 in 2013-14, Hedman had a breakout campaign with 55 points in 75 games.
Since 2013-14, Hedman has scored at least 10 goals and 38 points in every season. His presence as a big body and fluid skater opened a lot of eyes, and many predicted he would one day win the Norris.
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The Norris Trophy Season
Hedman was named to his first All-Star game in 2016-17, also the first season he was selected as a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Though he lost to San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns that year, he came back with a vengeance in 2017-18 with 16 goals and 56 assists. He also increased his average time-on-ice by nearly a minute and a half as he quarterbacked the Lightning power play.
The 2017-18 season was a career year for Hedman in multiple categories including goals, plus/minus, even-strength goals, shot attempts, time on ice (TOI), average TOI and hits. According to NHL.com, Hedman appeared on 163 of 164 ballots and had 94 first-place votes to beat out Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban to win his first Norris. Among NHL defensemen that season, Hedman was fifth in scoring and power-play scoring, and his 25:51 average TOI ranked fifth in the league.
Hedman became the first defenseman in Lightning history to win the Norris, and though he was considered by many to be one of the top blueliners in the league beforehand, winning the award validated how good he is at his position. His best game in the 2017-18 season came at home against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 3. In that game, Hedman had four points, including one on the power play and a sharp-angle goal off of Valtteri Filppula, but his best goal in that game was a slap shot that he ripped past goaltender Petr Mrazek.
In the replay of the goal, the Flyers made a bad change that allowed Hedman to jump into the middle of the ice and get an uncontested shot away. However, many defensemen would have stayed at the blue line for a pass to set up offense. In this instance, Hedman saw an opening and was ready to fire a shot away that beat Mrazek through the five hole.
Hedman was fifth on the Lightning in points in 2017-18 and the next closest Lightning defenseman was Mikhail Sergachev with 40. He also had a point in 32 of the Lightning’s 51 regular season wins, which shows how important he is to the team’s offense. He also had a point in 18 of the Lightning’s 29 wins at home and 14 of their 22 wins on the road.
In the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Hedman didn’t have a single point in the first round against the New Jersey Devils, but the Lightning won that series, 4-1. However, he had at least one point in every game against the Boston Bruins in the second round, and the Lightning also won that round, 4-1. In the Lightning’s seven-game series loss to the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, Hedman had at least one point in each of the first three games, including a three-point effort in Game 3, but was blanked for the final four games of the series.
The point here is this: when Hedman is on the score sheet, the Lightning have a better chance of winning. In this era of the NHL, most Norris Trophy nominees are both great offensively and defensively, and he succeeds at both. Teams that can shut him down offensively have a better chance of winning, but he’s good enough to adapt his game to be twice as strong defensively when he can’t get the offense going. The defensemen who can do this — the Burns, the Karlssons and the Hedmans of the NHL — are Norris Trophy defensemen.
Hedman Becoming a Veteran
Hedman has 10 NHL seasons under his belt and, given his individual success, he’s a player that many young players can learn from as they enter the NHL. The Lightning have a few young defensemen who will form their defensive core over the next five to 10 years including Sergachev, Cernak and prospects like Cal Foote and Dominik Masin.
Hedman is known for being a big body who can skate as well as any player in the NHL, but it’s the intangibles he can offer to the young talent that make him a great leader and mentor. Many of the best defensemen in the league are experts at knowing when to jump into the rush and when to fall back to play shut-down defense.
Hedman has mastered this craft over the course of 10 seasons, but it did not come overnight. It arguably took him between four and six seasons to fully understand how to balance his offensive and defensive skills, but he can cut learning time that in half for Foote, Masin and other Lightning defense prospects simply by teaching them about the ins and outs of playing defense in the NHL.
Even if Hedman hadn’t won the Norris Trophy, he would still be considered an elite defenseman. However, having that validation as the best defenseman in the NHL only makes his presence — both literally and figuratively — feel that much bigger. As he continues to be the No. 1 defenseman on the Lightning, it will only benefit the organization as a whole as their prospects learn how to play defense at a high level from one of the best in the game today.