At the end of the season there seemed to be a rush to name Nikita Kucherov MVP of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s understandable, the soft-spoken Russian had a career year with 40 goals and 85 points. (C’mon you couldn’t even pick up one measly assist to match your uniform number? Sad.) Now, as some time has passed and the beards have been shaved and the golf clubs dusted off, is it that clear of a choice?
While Kucherov had a great season, and it would painful to see where the Lightning would have finished without his production, it is unthinkable to think how bad things would have been if a certain Swedish god of hockey hadn’t also elevated his play in 2016-17. No, it isn’t Anton Stralman (although he played much better after a certain writer argued that it would be a good idea to trade him). It’s the other Swede, the one with the long flowing locks and the smooth stride on the ice — Victor Hedman.
Kucherov had a great offensive season, but Hedman had the greatest offensive season ever put together by a defensive member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. His 72 points were a franchise record. So were his 56 assists. Twelve even strength goals — yup, franchise record. As were his points-per-game (0.91) and assists per game (0.71). He 16 goals were only tied for third best in franchise history, so he does have room for improvement next season.
Delving a little deeper into the numbers (but not too deep, that’s @GeoFitz4 and @loserpoints’ territory), Hedman’s season is even more impressive than the man whose record he topped — Roman Hamrlik. In 1995-96, the 21-year-old defender shattered the previous highwater mark for a blueliner by putting up 65 points in 82 games. Prior to the season, Shawn Chambers had been the season record holder with a rather pedestrian 39 points.
So the precious young Hamrlik more than doubled the existing record. Yet, times were a little different in 1995-96. There was a little thing called offense. The Lightning defenders 65 points put him ninth in scoring - among defensemen. Four players (Brian Leetch, Ray Bourque, Paul Coffey and Chris Chelios) topped 70 points.
Overall, 12 players recorded more than 100 points in the season, topped by Mario Lemieux’s 161 points in 69 games. In a side note, the Lightning actually held him off the board in a game that year. On April 6th, 1996, he was held to only 3 shots in a 2-1 Penguins win. Granted, earlier in the year he had torched them for 6 assists in a game in a 10-0 Penguins win on November 1st. Hamrlik was a -3 in that game.
In comparison, Hedman’s 72 points this past season were second among blueliners and sixteenth overall. With offense at a higher premium, an argument can be made that his points were way more valuable than Hamrlik’s.
There is also the defensive aspect of Hedman’s game that makes him rise well above Hamrlik. In the 65-point season, Hamrlik was a -24. In his 72 point season, Hedman was a +3. Plus/minus isn’t a great stat, but it does give a decent snapshot. Since some of the analytics haven’t been compiled from the mid-1990s yet, Hamrlik’s Corsi stats aren’t available for comparison. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that they would pale in comparison to Hedman’s.
Prior to the season, Anton Stralman received a lot of credit for Hedman’s success. They were often referred to as one of the best pairings in the league. This year, due to various circumstances, that pairing was split up and Hedman was able to show the rest of the league that he could do just fine with a rookie strapped to his side. Jake Dotchin went from AHL-annoyer-of-Toronto-Marlies-fans to a legitimate NHL defenseman.
The Hedman/Dotchin pairing posted a 54.46 CF% when adjusted for score and venue. Which is identical to the 54.42 CF% posted by the Hedman/Stralman pairing this season in similar ice time. While Dotchin might be more talented than Jason Garrison or Braydon Coburn, Hedman showed that he didn’t need to rely on Stralman to put up strong defensive numbers.
There is such a smoothness to his game that his best plays are often overlooked because he makes it look extremely easy. With his stride he tracks down forwards and knocks the puck away. Despite being the size of a small house he isn’t going to make a lot of highlight reel hits, preferring to use his positioning and long reach to disrupt passes and set up a quick transition.
Speaking of transition, Hedman has the ability to turn defense into offense in two ways. First he has the ability to skate the puck out on his own. He is much faster down the ice than his size should allow. Especially when on the power play he seems to casually weave his way from one zone to the next to set up offensive opportunities.
Secondly, and something Kucherov has benefited from, is his ability to spot a teammate up the ice, behind the other’s team pass and connect with a pass. While some announcers might refer to it as a “hope” pass, Hedman’s ability to do it time and time again shows that it is a legitimate offensive strategy, especially when teams are trying to change their lines.
As for Kucherov’s very strong claim to the team MVP title, he doesn’t get to 40 goals without someone feeding him the puck. Hedman recorded an assist on 18 of his 40 goals and an amazing 13 of of his 17 power play goals. Hedman’s ability to handle the puck at the point with the man advantage was a key element to the massive improvement on special teams. In order for Kucherov to be able to fire off his lethal one-timer someone had to put the puck in the right place, more often than not that person was Hedman.
Is this peak Hedman or just the first of many impressive seasons to come? Unfortunately, only time will tell that. With the talent around him (at least in regards to the forwards) he should be able to put up points at a similar rate for the next few seasons. Brent Burns didn’t have his breakout season until 2014-15 when he put up 60 points as a 29-year old. At 26, Hedman might still have room to grow a bit.
In all likelihood he will continue to put up 60-70 point seasons for the next five or six years and constantly be referred to as the best defenseman not to win the Norris.