Jacob Markstrom, Victor Hedman, and Nicklas Backstrom.
Victor Hedman served notice that he's going to be a dominant force in the World Cup, and likely into the NHL regular season. This could be the year that he's a Norris Trophy contender.
Sweden may be giving us an early preview of the Norris Trophy favorite for 2016-17 and I ain't talking about Erik Karlsson. Because as good as the Ottawa Senators captain is, Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman made an opening statement at the World Cup.
Hedman's defensive play alone in Sweden's 2-1 victory over Russia was enough to warrant his first star of the game selection, but the towering defenseman also potted what turned out to be the game-winning goal, too. And while we have already seen some excellent playoff hockey from the mobile giant in Tampa Bay, the best may be upon us now.
“Hedman, he's a horse,” said Sweden coach Rickard Gronborg. “He played in all kinds of different situations. He's proven to everyone back home in Sweden just how good he is.”
Playing with Lightning partner Anton Stralman, Hedman faced off against Russia's top guns throughout the victory, shutting down the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk (Hedman wasn't on the ice for Ovie's goal). He led the game in ice time (22:54) and the Swedes in shorthanded duty (2:03). Physical and skilled, Hedman could knock over the big-bodied Malkin, but also cast the puck up the ice out of harm's way. Though Sweden has an enviable D-corps that also features Karlsson and Arizona's Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the Hedman-Stralman tandem was incredible.
“Him and Stralman play really well together; we see it in Tampa and we've seen it here too,” said Daniel Sedin. “Both guys make a good first pass and then we're out of our own end.”
Sedin has a unique perspective on Hedman. He and his twin brother Henrik are fellow natives of Ornskoldvik, the legendary northern town in Sweden that has produced a flurry of NHL titans (Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, included), despite a population of just 29,000. All three have cottages on the lake, so they see each other in the off-season and Hedman, a decade younger than the twins, has grown up before their eyes.
“I've been impressed,” Sedin said. “He's taken the same approach as me and Hank did when we were younger: summer by summer, getting stronger. I know how hard he works in the summer and I'm not surprised to see where he is right now because of that.”
Though it was only one game, it's hard not to see Hedman's performance against Russia as the start of a huge campaign for him. He has already been a possession demon in Tampa Bay, playing big minutes and contributing at both ends of the ice. But there was something about his passionate goal celebration today that had a certain beast-mode quality to it. Overshadowed by Karlsson and Los Angeles' Drew Doughty for the past few NHL seasons, there is no way Hedman will be ignored anymore; he's taking the big stage by storm. Even though off the ice, he's still a humble guy when he plays the hero.
“It's an unreal feeling,” Hedman said. “During the national anthem and throughout the game we could hear the Swedish fans – you get goosebumps.”
Coming into the tournament, we knew Sweden had one of the best – if not the best – defense corps. Russia was given very little through the first 59 minutes and while Hedman and Stralman stood out, the whole group was effective.
“We're very comfortable,” Hedman said. “All seven guys can play and we're not worried about match-ups. We have that commitment and the chemistry is obviously good.”
Coach Gronborg also gave credit to his forwards for playing sound defensively and disrupting Russia's transition before it began, but his defense also helped on the offensive end, with Hedman's goal a prime example.
“When we get our 'D' involved and cause confusion, that's when we're at our best,” Hedman said.
And if he can continue his excellent play through this tournament and into the season, Hedman will be a stiff challenger for that Norris Trophy. Heck, if he and Stralman can pace the Lightning back end at their current clip, the Stanley Cup won't be much of a stretch, either.