TAMPA — Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman played as if something suddenly clicked for him this year, a traffic light turning from red to green.
Restricted for years from making full use of his array of offensive skills, Hedman finally got the go-ahead to join the rush. The Lightning’s run into the playoffs was just one of the results, as Hedman joined Roman Hamrlik and Dan Boyle as the only defensemen in franchise history to produce more than 50 points in a season.
“We really tried to open up the game for him and give him the responsibility to create on the offensive end,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And when he’s found those openings and stepped into them, he’s done a heck of a job.”
Among NHL defensemen, Hedman ranked ninth in the league in goals (13), seventh in assists (42) and fifth in points (55). And it’s not like his defense suffered as a result: Hedman had a plus-5 rating. A key part of the Lightning penalty kill, he also led NHL defensemen with six short-handed points.
Add it all up and 2013-14 proved to be a breakout season for Hedman, a 2009 first-round draft pick of the Lightning who averaged just 22 points per season during his first four seasons.
“I think my confidence is the biggest key to (my success) this year,’’ said Hedman, 23. “From the first day of training camp, I had the confidence to make plays with the puck and do a little more offensively.
“Experience is a big part of it, too. This is my fifth year now, and I see plays develop around me better now. And that, combined with having great players around me, it’s really been good for us.’’
At 6-foot-6 and 233 pounds, Hedman is a towering presence on the blue line with a strong shot from the point and a rare ability to quickly move into position to make a play at the other end of the ice.
“You can’t teach what he brings,” said Rick Bowness, the Lightning assistant in charge of defense. “So, what we wanted to do with him this year was encourage him to let his natural instincts take over, because he moves the puck so well and shoots it so well.’’
Hedman is enjoying his newfound freedom.
“It’s been a bumpy ride, but I’m starting to round out my game now,’’ he said. “I want to be a difference-maker at both ends of the ice, and I just need to keep plugging away at it, keep working hard, and it will come.’’
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