Entering the off season following the 2013-14 campaign where the Lightning fell flat on their faces in the playoffs, GM Steve Yzerman must have had one, clear goal in mind.
Address the blue line.
The additions made -- versatile power play specialist and left-shot, right-side capable Jason Garrison; and Anton Stralman, perhaps the most reliable and steady defensemen in the NHL, have certainly bolstered what was an inexperienced and often mistake-prone group a season ago.
Radko Gudas was forced into top-4 minutes with Matt Carle, which was disastrous. The pair regularly got caved in by tough competition and too many minutes facing it. The new additions have shaved two full minutes of Gudas' time on ice per game, freeing him up to play his game physically and effectively while staying fresh and not getting buried in the defensive zone against the best the other team has to offer. Matt Carle has, with a new mix of partners including Stralman, Garrison, and Andrej Sustr, been one of the most-improved puck possession players in the entire NHL:
Most improved possession players in the NHL (raw CF%). Keep in mind some of this is usage and/or being on new team. pic.twitter.com/XExNA6rZWU— James Mirtle (@mirtle) December 22, 2014
Ultimately, most of these improved on-ice results are made possible because of one simple fact: the Lightning have Victor Hedman. Construction of an NHL blue line that wins games, and wins playoff games, starts at the top. Every team in the league has guys they like in the 4-5-6 spots. But the teams that make the playoffs every year and have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations? They all have dominant rearguards that excel in multiple aspects of the game. For the Lightning, Victor Hedman is that guy.
Complementary pieces fall into place and form a steady, effective blue line because the guy at the top is a true #1 -- a luxury that makes Jon Cooper's job a lot easier each night.
Anton Stralman, who has been Hedman's right-hand man for most of this season, filled in admirably as the top guy while Hedman was out, but has just 1 assist in twelve games during the month of December. Stralman's game complements Hedman's nicely, as the former New York Ranger excels in keeping opponents from gaining the zone and leads a smart breakout that gets the Lightning back into the offensive third (where Hedman shines) quickly and efficiently. But Stralman lacks the skillset in the offensive zone to be a long-term catalyst there.
Hedman's 14 points in 18 games puts him on a career-high 63-point pace over a full 82 games; of course, missing a good chunk of games in the fall due to a broken bone in his hand will hurt his totals in the long-run, but the production is still there, and he's now outpaced Stralman in total points in spite of playing significantly fewer games.
His 5v5 points/60, among the best blue liners in the league the past two seasons, has fallen off considerably down to 0.99, but some of that coincides with his return to the lineup being at a moment in the season when the Lightning as a team have been floundering a bit offensively. He has a pair of three-helper games in December and could break out again at any moment, particularly playing behind a forward group that has, at times this year, looked unstoppable offensively. Hedman, like the rest of the team, will experience his ups and downs as the Lightning's 5v5 team shooting percentage continues to regress to the mean. But, with Hedman anchoring a blue line that creates a significant shot differential advantage for the Bolts, they'll continue to score more than they let in moving forward.
Here's how the panel ranked him this year:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 2
As long as one Steven Stamkos continues to be eligible for this list, Hedman is destined to remain #2. That said, Stamkos' reign comes to an end this year, as this summer he will age out of this ranking (Stamkos turns 25 in February). Hedman turned 24 on December 18, so there will be a new number 1. Will it be Hedman?