Last June, the New York Islanders did right by the Tampa Bay Lightning and chose center John Tavares first overall. Then, as according to their game plan, the Lightning wisely chose Victor Hedman second overall. Hedman was obviously the best fit for the Lightning as they were a team in desperate need of defense.
Victor Hedman, though a tall guy at 6'6" (who is still growing, scarily enough), is still only 18 years old. However, he did play two years in the Swedish Elite League for Modo in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden. Not with their junior league team, but with their professional team. That's Tier I Swedish hockey. At 16 years old, he was playing with the big boys.
So it baffles me when I hear that people are surprised by how composed he is playing for an NHL team. I suppose most think of him as they would any other first round draft pick right out of high school or juniors. But to do that is a disservice to his on-ice maturity and ability.
On the flip side of that, it's also a disservice to him to assume that he can play like he's an NHL veteran in mid-season form. In his first two games with the Lightning, he's logged 27:15 in his first game (7:37 PP and 6:27 PK) and 27:04 in his second game (4:03 PP and 4:25 PK). Veteran defenseman Kurtis Foster had the second most minutes during the first game with only 21:34 - almost a full six minutes less than the rookie Hedman. Mattias Ohlund, a seasoned veteran on defense, is the only one who came close to logging in those kind of minutes for the second preseason game, playing 24:22.
Part of that is the coaches' fault, but it's also Hedman's fault as well. It's the joint responsibility of the coaches and the players to gauge the length of shifts. His average shift length was 1:00 in the second preseason game, while for the first game it was 0:51. Playing 45-50 seconds a shift is probably the ideal at this time of the year for a defenseman, which ends up being around 19-21 minutes a game. Hedman needs to judge the length of his shifts better, as do the coaches so they can get him off of the ice sooner.
Why do minutes matter? Simply put, it's a matter of pacing yourself. A good example of this are baseball pitchers. At the beginning of the season, pitch counts matter a great deal. Neither the pitcher nor the manager want to wear out the arm of the pitcher, since that could lead to injury. So they start the pitcher with a lower count at first, and then gradually ease him into throwing more as the season goes on.
It's a similar story in hockey. While hockey players usually come into camp in great physical condition, that doesn't mean that they're in mid-season form the first time they step on to the ice for a preseason game. Shifts should be short in order to build up muscle strength and stamina. Ice skating in not a natural motion for the body to do, so no one should dive right into that and expect things to go alright almost immediately.
In the case of Victor Hedman, overskating now could result in an injury early in the regular season. Most likely it would be a groin pull or perhaps an abdominal strain. Those kinds of injuries linger on throughout the season and can keep a guy going in and out of the lineup. Worst case scenario is, of course, surgery for something like that.
So no matter how good Victor Hedman is now, he won't be of any use to the Lightning if he's sitting in the press box for half the season nursing a lingering injury. Letting him play a lot now likely isn't going to help anyone down the road. While you want to nurture such talent, you also want to be cautious with it. Letting him ease into the game a bit now should help ensure that he lasts the entire season in great form.