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Blue Line Beast

If the Tampa Bay Lightning lift the Stanley Cup, then a defenseman will likely lift the Conn Smythe for just the second time in the past 13 years.


The Conn Smythe Award for hockey’s most valuable postseason player is almost always bestowed upon the Stanley Cup champion’s top-scoring forward or overbearing netminder. While it isn’t hard to understand why the point of attack and the last line of defense tend to secure this award, the lack of recognition for the NHL’s top defensemen on the game’s biggest stage is puzzling.

A blueliner has only won the Conn Smythe nine times since the award was established in 1964, and only three have won it since 2000. Of the eight different defensemen to win a Conn Smythe, only two don’t have a Norris Trophy alongside it in their trophy cabinet, and every retired winner has been inducted into the Hall-of-Fame (Duncan Keith, the only active defensemen with a Conn Smythe, is a lock, too).

It takes some sensational two-way play in order for a defenseman to outshine a flashy forward or a goalie standing on his head, but about once a decade, a generational defenseman will put on a postseason performance that can’t be overshadowed. After a brilliant postseason so far, in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman will make his case for a spot on that list.

The Lightning’s talismanic figure is familiar with the big stage, and even contention for a Conn Smythe. Hedman has been one of the game’s best defenseman for the past five seasons, with his game taking off during the 2015 postseason when he helped lead Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago. Hedman and Keith were the two MVP favorites entering the series, but Keith nabbed the Conn Smythe as the Blackhawks won the Cup.

Since that series, Hedman has finished third in Norris voting twice and won it once in 2017-18. But as Hedman continued to solidify himself as one of the top blueliners in the sport, Tampa Bay consciously fell short of a return to the Cup Final stage.

The Lightning lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015-16 and 2017-18 and missed the playoffs altogether in 2016-17. Worst of all, after winning the President’s Trophy by a whopping 21 points last season, Tampa Bay didn’t just get upset in first round, the eighth-seeded Blue Jackets swept the Lightning in a shocker for the ages.

Getting swept by a team that made the playoffs by a two-point margin seemed to solidify a growing perception that Tampa Bay were postseason flatliners. But the Lightning’s run in the NHL bubble has diminished a lot of those doubts, due in large part to Hedman’s marvelous play.

At an imposing 6-foot-6, 223 pounds, Hedman’s game betrays the book-by-its-cover judgement. Despite his size, he is hardly a board bully; Hedman has only eclipsed 100 hits once in his 11-year career. Instead, Hedman uses his broad frame tactically, positioning himself expertly to make it impossible for opposing forwards to drive the puck past him. He plays a cerebral game and succeeds thanks to acumen rather than intimidation.

Hedman’s offensive game is just as nuanced as his defensive work. His sublime tape-to-tape passing and intrusive vision allows Tampa Bay to quickly break through the lines when he gets on the puck. In the offensive zone, the only problem with Hedman’s shot is that he doesn’t use it enough. He has tremendous accuracy on wristers and slap shots, and his nine goals in the postseason thus far has him just three short of the playoff record for a defenseman.

The Lightning are straight up dominant when Hedman is on the ice. No blueliner has contributed to more goals this postseason than Hedman, with Tampa scoring 25 times and conceding just six with him in the game. It helps that Hedman is built for the marathon, playing more minutes in the bubble than everyone but Dallas’ own dynamite defenseman Miro Heiskanen.

Hedman spearheads a Lightning blueline group that is packed with high-end talent that General Manager Julien BriseBois has bolstered since joining in 2018. Seven of the nine defenders on Tampa’s roster were first-round picks, and five of them were top 10 selections. Outside of team captain Steven Stamkos, who has been sidelined all postseason with an injury, the Lightning’s only first-round pick who isn’t a defenseman is goalie Andre Vasilevskiy.

More importantly than their draft position is their current contract situation. Zach Bogosian, Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn are all unrestricted free agents this summer. Tampa Bay has restricted free agent rights for the spectacular Mikhail Sergachev, but beyond that Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are the only defenseman locked in for the longterm.

But as long as Tampa Bay has Hedman, they will already have one of the league’s best bluelines based on his talent alone. And with four more wins, Hedman will help the Lightning bury the postseason demons that have haunted them since 2015 while cementing himself in a special class of defenseman who carried their teams to Stanley Cup glory.

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