TAMPA, Fla. - He was one of the 2009 NHL Draft's big three, considered a legitimate choice if the Islanders had chosen to go defense rather than forward with the No. 1 pick.
The Isles went their way, choosing instant star John Tavares. Tampa Bay, with the second pick, went defense, taking 6-6 Swede Victor Hedman (center Matt Duchene, drafted next by Colorado, was the third member of the big three).
Hedman's stats will never stand up to Tavares' gaudy numbers, but the big Lightning defenseman is heading into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night playing the best hockey of his six-year NHL career at a time of year when Tavares would love to be playing.
"If I look at our year, obviously [Ben] Bishop is the guy that anchors us back there," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday. "But when Hedman is going, our team's going. Sometimes when he's not, our team isn't, and that says a lot about a player that he has that much effect on our team."
From a numbers perspective, Hedman broke out in 2013-14, scoring 55 points and getting a little Norris Trophy attention. He missed 18 games with a broken finger in October and November, but still finished with 38 points; his scoring touch was on display in Game 2 on Monday when he threaded a diagonal feed through the heart of the Rangers' defense to Alex Killorn for an easy goal to make it 4-2 early in the third period of Tampa Bay's 6-2 win.
"It feels like stepping on to the ice, I feel confident in my game, I feel confident on both ends of the ice, and that's kind of the way I want to play," Hedman said.
His size belies such a smooth skating stride, so he's able to play to the same quickness level as his veteran partner, Anton Stralman. Hedman also has the requisite nasty streak to compete in front of his own net.
This is not his first go-round this late in the postseason. He was only in his second year when the Lightning made a surprise run to the 2011 conference finals, losing in seven games to the Bruins. He played 20-plus minutes a night in that postseason, as well, but his focus was not the full range of the ice as it is now.
"He's just been getting better and better as the season went on," Cooper said. "He's played in all different situations, been on the power play, the penalty kill. And it's hard to do, but he pulls it off really good for us."