SUNRISE — The saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, they knew exactly what they were missing when Victor Hedman was out.
And in the two games Hedman has been back in the lineup since missing two weeks with a lower-body injury, the just-turned 23-year-old has shown exactly how far his game has come.
“If you look at our last two games in particular, I would say we have played extremely well, and though the score might not be indicative, we were in control of both of those games,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “And I would say that it’s no coincidence that both of those games are also the two games that Victor Hedman has been back.’’
Tampa Bay managed Hedman’s absence from the blue line by posting a 4-1-2 record (including the game Hedman was hurt in the first period), but in the past two games the Lightning have dominated in puck possession
In his return Thursday against Nashville, Hedman logged 21 minutes of ice time, picked up an assist and was a plus-2 in a 4-2 victory.
In Saturday’s overtime victory against Carolina, Hedman scored his seventh goal of the season and his play from the point set up the third-period tying goal on the power play, and he played a little less than 28 minutes.
As well as Hedman was playing before the injury, the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder does not appear to have missed a beat — and he might be playing even better as the second overall pick in the 2009 draft continues to make strides toward becoming a true No. 1 defenseman.
With seven goals Hedman has already surpassed his career best and is on track to shatter his career-high of 26 points.
But it’s not just about his offensive numbers, it’s how he carries himself on the ice, an understanding of what to expect after playing in the league for four seasons and how that all adds up what Hedman is putting on display.
“I find he has gained more and more confidence, he’s playing in all situations, his minutes are up and he’s playing against the best players in the league,’’ Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. “His confidence is starting to grow. And it takes a while for guys to realize how good they can be in this league, and there comes a maturity that comes with that. You are a much more mature person at (age 23) than you are at 18, and you are growing off the ice and growing on the ice.’’
As Hedman’s defensive game has matured in his own end since his rookie year, his offensive game has blossomed. He’s more active in the offensive zone, jumping up in the rush and jumping in to holes such as he did on Saturday cutting down the left point to take a pass from Valtteri Filppula and flipping a wrist shot into the net.
“I feel very confident with the puck, confident I can make plays and still play well at both ends of the ice,’’ Hedman said. “And the way we play suits the way I like to play.”
Should he keep going the way he is, and Tampa Bay continues to stay in a playoff position, at some point Hedman is going see his name start to enter into the conversation as a potential Norris Trophy candidate as the league’s best defenseman.
“You always hoped that he would turn into this type of defenseman, but I wasn’t sure we were going to see it this soon,’’ Cooper said. “That’s what has been great for us, and maybe this was his growth chart and this was the year he was supposed to take off. Maybe it’s the system we play that helps him. I don’t know what all the factors are, because if you look at his first 15 games of the year, he was not even in the same stratosphere as he is now. ...
“Now he’s like, ‘Coach, that’s it, you’ve given it to me and I’m not giving it back,’ and he’s given me no reason to take it away from him.’’