TAMPA — Last season was a breakout year for the Lightning’s Victor Hedman, who finished fourth in scoring among defensemen with 55 points to easily surpass his career high by 29 points and garner Norris Trophy votes.
Hedman is off to a quick start this season, picking up the winning goal against Florida in overtime in the season opener, then opening the scoring with a power-play goal 15:42 into the first period on Saturday against Ottawa.
A big reason for the breakout is the coaching staff allowing Hedman to use his offensive instincts.
“Somebody with that much size and strength, we don’t want to tie him just to our end of the ice. He’s got a shot, he can see it, so when you mix all that together ...,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And the way Victor plays is how we like to play, and I think we’ve taken advantage of his strengths.’’
At one point, Richard Panik was part of the future, expected to be a main cog of a group that enjoyed success in the minors that would carry over to the NHL. But Panik was lost on waivers to Toronto after he was unable to find consistency and watched former linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat go on to be Calder Trophy finalists in their first full season in the NHL.
“It was difficult last year because there was one point where they went to the line with (Marty) St. Louis and I went the other way, so that was frustrating,” Panik said. “But they deserve it. They earned their spot, they play hard and are really good players. I’m glad they are doing good and hopefully it will keep going.’’
Seeing Panik, who made his debut with the Maple Leafs on Saturday, depart the organization was not easy for Johnson.
“It’s tough to see him go, but I’m sure he’s going to have a great opportunity,” Johnson said. “For whatever reason it didn’t quite work out (in Tampa), but he’s still a friend, he’s still a family member and I wish him all the best.”
At the end of Thursday’s opener, RW J.T. Brown was moved up to the third line to play with C Vladislav Namestnikov and LW Nikita Kucherov as Cooper put together the line that opened last season together with Syracuse of the American Hockey League. That was, until injuries and call-ups broke up the trio after a fast start.
The three started as a line Saturday against Ottawa, and Cooper is hoping by putting the line back together, the players can rekindle the success they had last year, when Brown was referred to as Brownov, the third “Russian” on the line.
“One guy is kind of a puck retriever for them, and the other two can zip it around,” Cooper said. “So I like that comfort level for them, especially since Brown has been here for a little bit. But the other two not that long, and they have a comfort level with each other. They did it in the American League, so it’s time to see if they can do it in the NHL.”
LW Jonathan Drouin continues to skate with the team during practice but he is being held out of most drills and has stayed out of contact drills as he continues to recover from a fracture in his right thumb. There is a chance he could be ready to make his NHL debut in one of the two remaining games on this homestand.
“I think probably Monday or Tuesday we’ll have a better indication of where he’ll be, so a couple more days,” Cooper said.
Status quo, Part 2
Tampa Bay utilized the same lineup on Saturday that played in the opener, which meant veteran D Eric Brewer was a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game, along with Drouin and D Mark Barberio.
“I’ll probably say this 25 times this year: We are putting in the best lineup we feel gives us a chance to win every night,” Cooper said. “You need to have depth on the team, and I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to keep sitting guys all the way through. So somehow, some way, we are going to have to work guys in, because they deserve to play.”
Nuts and Bolts
Brenden Morrow and Valtteri Filppula wore an “A” as alternate captains Saturday. That role will continue to rotate until at least Oct. 28. ... Syracuse opened its AHL schedule at home Saturday against Springfield with a 3-1 loss. Kristers Gudlevskis started in goal, making 20 saves. Mike Blunden had the Syracuse goal.