Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is working on his fifth consecutive Norris Trophy nomination. He was the MVP of his team’s championship run last season, hoisting the Stanley Cup during a boat parade months before Tom Brady tossed the Lombardi trophy from his boat to Rob Gronkowski’s on the Hillsborough River near downtown Tampa, Florida. At a time when the NHL’s elite forwards are picked apart for their defensive flaws, Hedman is one of hockey’s most complete players.
So, all of that established, is it possible that Victor Hedman is the best hockey player in the world right now?
“Not a chance,” said Hedman, with a laugh. “I would say zero people in the world would say I’m the best player in the world.”
Even though he plays over 25 impactful minutes on average per game, controlling conditions in his own zone while aggressively joining the offensive flow? Hedman is second during the past three seasons in points-per-game average (0.83) among defensemen who have played over 100 games, and he’s tied for first in goals scored above average (35.3) among defensemen in that span, per Evolving-Hockey data.
Still not a chance?
“No. Not according to me, at least. Now, If someone were to say that to me, I would say, ‘Thank you but I don’t think so,'” Hedman said. “I mean, I wouldn’t argue with the guy. But I just don’t think I’m the best player in the world. Zero chance.”
His coach, Jon Cooper, isn’t constrained by Hedman’s modesty in discussing the star defenseman. In his ninth season with the Lightning, Cooper has coached Hedman since the towering Swede was 22 years old.
“Is he 30 now? You know, it’s crazy: I would argue he’s playing the best of his career. There are times when he’s going where it looks like a man among boys,” Cooper said. “I’ve just watched that kid get better and better. I don’t know when he’s going to hit his ceiling.”
Hedman was drafted second overall in 2009 behind John Tavares, who was selected by the New York Islanders. No one has a better plus/minus rating from the draft class (plus-118) than Hedman. and he’s fourth among his fellow draftees in career points (488). He played professionally before joining the Lightning in 2009-10 as a 19-year-old. It’s a familiar path for elite Swedish prospects. Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, for example, played three seasons in the Elitserien before joining the Detroit Red Wings as a 21-year-old rookie in 1991-92.
“It’s tougher on a defenseman stepping into the league at a young age than at forward. You’re a lot more exposed. Your mistakes are magnified,” Lidstrom told ESPN recently. “Hedman came in young. He had a longer runway than other young players … but boy, did he ever take off, in every aspect of his game.”
It took a while for Hedman to get his wheels completely off the ground. Hedman’s first four NHL seasons saw him establish himself as a defensive presence, using his 6-foot-6, 225-pound frame effectively, if not as the human wrecking ball the dimensions might promise. But it wasn’t until his fifth campaign that his offense caught up to that defense, with a 0.73 points-per-game average in Cooper’s first full season behind the bench in Tampa Bay.
“There is something to the stat that to become a defenseman in this league, people say it takes 150-200 games. I think that’s true. Players get away with their physical ability and attributes. Heddy had size, strength and speed. But it’s not until you play in the league and understand the players that I think hockey sense as a defenseman can develop,” said Cooper, who added he believes it’s that hockey sense that has separated Hedman from his peers during his run in the NHL.
“He knows what’s happening all over the ice now. Probably when he was younger, he only knew what was happening on the ice with him. That’s what makes you a world-class defenseman: being able to see what’s going on. And Vic’s really grown into that.”
Hedman said his hockey sense has always been one of this best attributes. “But as you get older and more experienced, and you play more years in the league, you can anticipate plays that are supposed to be happening. You can arrive to it a little bit quicker. It’s just experience, paying a lot of attention to different players and knowing their tendencies,” he said.
Knowing the tendencies of an opponent works both ways. Hedman said the all-world offensive players he faces know what he likes to do, too.
“Some of these players have so much skill that they can do whatever they see as well. You have an idea of what they’re going to do. That’s the problem: If you’re a little overaggressive and you’re going against a Nate MacKinnon or a Connor McDavid — who I don’t see many times, thank God — they come across the blue line and can right left, right, in between you. You just have to be a little more patient in that regard. If you’re overaggressive, then it can quickly turn into a [SportsCenter] highlight,” he said, laughing.
Hedman is rarely source material for someone else’s highlight. “He’s someone that can control the games now,” Lidstrom said. “Look at the playoffs last year and how he handled himself. The team played well, and he was one of the bigger parts of their success last year.”
Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy with 22 points in 25 games, including three game-winning goals among his 10 tallies. He had seven points against Dallas in the Stanley Cup Final alone. He averaged 26 minutes, 28 seconds on ice per game, which included some marathons: Hedman skated over 30 minutes in a playoff game on five occasions. Remember that five-overtime classic between the Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round? Seth Jones got all the attention for skating over 65 minutes, but Hedman was right behind him at 57:38.
“I’ve been really impressed with the way his career has taken off. Especially doing it with the minutes, his ice time being up as much as it is,” said Lidstrom, who once averaged 29:20 per game with the Red Wings in the regular season. “Some players, once their ice time gets up in the high 20s, their play declined. They’re prone to mistakes. There’s fatigue involved. But he’s just a workhorse. It doesn’t bother him one bit. He seems to get better as he’s playing more.”
Hedman said it’s all in the conditioning.
“It’s about how I prepare for every season. I prepare for a long season, one with overtime games and the playoffs. That’s the way I train. I focus a lot on recovery. You have to have quick recovery in this game,” he said. “If you need five overtimes, then you need five overtimes. You have to be ready to go.”
While perhaps at the peak of his powers as an NHL player, Hedman said he’s still working on parts of his skills set.
“I still want to get better. I still want to be as good as I can be,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be on a very successful team. I count on myself to be as good as I can be every night. My weaknesses? I know what they are. I feel like I could be better around my own net, boxing guys out. Maybe being a little meaner. Those are things that I work on, but I also don’t want to get away from my game.”
It’s all in service of being better, if not necessarily of perfection. After all, there’s only one “Perfect Human,” as Nicklas Lidstrom was famously monikered in Detroit.
Hedman admits it’s a thrill to have a fan in the legendary defenseman.
“I just turned 30, so I don’t see myself as a young guy anymore. But when you hear his name … he’s one of the best to ever play the game,” Hedman said. “It’s still cool. It’s still cool that you shared the ice with him. One of the biggest thrills coming into the league was playing against Detroit and playing against him, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall.”
Does Lidstrom believe that Hedman could be the best player in the world?
“I would rank him right up there with the top players. He’s good in all aspects of the game, whether it’s playing short-handed or quarterbacking the power play. He does it all for them,” he said.
There might have been a time when Lidstrom was considered hockey’s best all-around player himself, but the fact is that defensemen and goaltenders — and Dominik Hasek certainly made his case for world’s best, too — aren’t measured against the world’s best forwards in these debates.
That was Cooper’s reaction when asked if Hedman was the world’s best player.
“I’ll throw him into the ‘best defenseman in the world’ argument with no problem. But it’s like the Bobby Orr vs. Wayne Gretzky argument. It’s hard to say which one, because they play different positions. But if you’re looking at defenseman, most definitely,” he said.
Beyond his own humility, this is the primary reason Hedman doesn’t believe he can be called the best player in the world: the apples vs. oranges debate.
“It’s tough to compare positions. It’s like comparing a quarterback and a cornerback. You can’t really compare,” he said. “There are so many good players in this league. I’m just trying to be as good as a I can every night. The judgment is for others to make.”