Victor Hedman won the Norris trophy last year, awarded to the best defenseman in a given season. He is the first player to win the award while playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
His 2017-2018 campaign saw him amass 63 points in 77 games, including a career-high 17 goals. He averaged almost 26 minutes a night, good for fifth in the league among skaters and over four minutes more than teammate Anton Stralman’s 21:29.
So yes, the former #2 overall pick is a very important player. One could argue that no other player for the Bolts is more valuable. So when his head collided with the boards following a hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves, every Lightning fan held their breath. They knew their team could ill-afford to spend a significant stretch of the season without their star defenseman.
Luckily for them, the news was not dire. Officially listed as an upper-body injury, Hedman is not expected to miss many more than the three games he has at the time of publishing and there's a good chance he could return to the lineup on November 3rd in Montreal.
But this situation did get me thinking about what would happen if Hedman was ever out for an extended-period of time. How would a blueline that relies so heavily on its star function without him? Though a small sample size, these past three games can provide some insight.
Replacing a minutes-eater like Hedman is not as easy as pushing everyone up one spot on the depth chart, something teams do when losing a top six forward. It takes some juggling and even changing the defensive game-plan.
The Bolts already have an elite second pairing that can play big minutes. Ryan McDonagh (22:25) and Stralman (21:56) ranked second and third, respectively, in ice time among Tampa Bay defensemen at the time of the Hedman injury. One would think their PT would merely increase to cover up the 6’6-sized Swedish hole.
One would not think, however, that their ice time would go DOWN. Stralman’s number only went down 50 seconds, to 21:06 a game. McDonagh is being deployed 1:10 less, at 21:15 minutes a game.
Meanwhile it’s Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev who have seen substantial increases in playing time. Sergachev was averaging 16:40 a night through the first eight games, thanks in part to about two minutes of power play time running the second unit. The three games since? 19:06 a night, including almost 20 minutes against the Western Conference-leading Nashville Predators.
Coburn has seen even more of the ice, jumping from 14:38 per game to 19:13. He’s rewarded the trust that assistant coach Todd Richards, who is in charge of in-game defenseman deployment, have put in him, scoring two important goals against the Devils and amassing 11 shots on goal across the three games.
Even Dan Girardi, who averaged 16:25 despite spending most of his shifts with Hedman, saw an uptick in ice time, averaging 17:31 without his partner in the lineup. And Slater Koekkoek, who had not seen action before the game in Arizona, has seen 16 minutes a night, which is about two shifts more than Coburn’s team-lowest (among defensemen) 14:38 before Hedman’s injury.
Coburn and McDonagh are the players that have stepped up the most. They are visibly active all over the ice, leading rushes into the offensive zone and making acrobatic plays in their own end. McDonagh was especially heroic in the game against Vegas, playing almost 11 of his 27 minutes in the third period after Hedman left the game and the team was down to five defensemen, to preserve a 3-2 lead. He finished the game with five blocks, three of which came on the penalty kill.
When you look at the numbers, the results aren't great as the Bolts have given up 14 goals in their last three games. But half of those came in the Arizona game, which was on the wrong end of a back-to-back and at the end of a road trip that saw them play five games in eight days.
Tampa Bay is obviously a much better team when Victor Hedman is playing. But it should be comforting for their fans to know that should he sustain any long-term injury, they can still stay afloat.