Drew Doughty. Tyler Myers. Erik Karlsson. John Carlson. Alex Pietrangelo. Oliver Ekman-Larsson. PK Subban.
The above names are those of some of the most vaunted young defenders in the NHL today. Between them, they have won two Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenceman, three nominations for that same award, one Stanley Cup, one Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, 1860 NHL games, 237 goals and 922 points. Given that the average age of these players is a shade over 23, and their average draft position is 15th overall, that is a stunning collection of high-end talent.
So where does the oft-forgotten 2nd overall pick in 2009 stand in comparison?
Victor Hedman was a remarkable talent from an early age, playing his first games in Sweden’s U20 league for Modo at the age of 15, and dominating that league by the age of 16. He also saw his first professional action at this time, playing 39 games in the Swedish Elitserien for Modo and impressing with 2 goals, 2 assists and a +1 rating, whilst taking part in his first World Junior Championship playing 6 games on the way to winning Silver and being named to the All-Star Team – really rather remarkable considering he was still a full year away from being drafted.
Entering his draft season of 2008/09 with high expectations – he was drawing comparisons to Chris Pronger and had people believing he would be Nick Lidstrom’s successor as the next great Swedish defender – he didn’t disappoint, scoring 7 goals and 21 points whilst registering a +21 goal differential in 43 games, at times being ranked as the number 1 draft eligible player in the world and earning both the Swedish Junior Player of the Year award and the Elitserien Rookie of the Year award. He also played in his second WJC, again winning a Silver medal.
By this point, the hype was through the roof, but there was the issue of the New York Islanders, the team that was clearly going to be selecting 1st overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Would they select Hedman, who had the potential to be that enormous, fast skating, smart-thinking, highly skilled and (relatively) physical defender that every team wanted, an anchor on both defense and offense for the next 15 years? Or would they select John Tavares, the junior hockey phenom expected to be ”the next Sidney Crosby” who had just ripped apart the OHL for fun since the age of 15, and had the talent to be a superstar center in the NHL for the next 15 years?
Most believed they could have gone either way and ended up with a great player, but for the Islanders the allure of Tavares’ unbelievable skill trumped the slight risk of taking a defenseman 1st overall – just ask St Louis about that. With the Tampa Bay Lightning selecting second — and having already taken Steven Stamkos 1st overall the year before — it was a dream come true, being able to add a franchise-calibre talent on the blueline to a team that already had its elite scoring center-of-the-future in place.
Making the Lightning out of training camp, as expected, he registered his first NHL point in his first game, and scored his first goal in December against the very team that had passed over him at the draft, the Islanders. He finished his season with 4 goals and 20 points in 74 games, along with a -3 rating, very respectable totals for an 18-year-old defender. So far, so good, particularly on an awful Tampa Bay squad that finished with a terrible -43 goal differential and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
ESTABLISHED NHL BLUELINER
Hedman improved to 26 points in 79 games in 2010/11, with a +3 rating on a Tampa team that finished +7 and made the playoffs. Perhaps this wasn’t the significant improvement many were expecting, but it was a solid performance nonetheless and seemingly in lock-step with the performance of the team, who went on a surprise charge through the playoffs before eventually falling in dramatic fashion to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. Hedman notched 6 points and an even rating in 18 games, and was an integral part of the team – he logged an average of 22:16 per game, second only behind Eric Brewer and over 2 minutes ahead of third place Mattias Ohlund.
Not shabby for a 19-year-old with just 2 seasons of NHL experience.
The following year he remained steady in his point totals, posting 23, but consider that he missed 21 games to injury and you can see that his points per game increased from 0.33 to 0.38, so there was progress, but he dipped to a not-so-impressive -9 rating. Remember however that the 2011/12 Tampa Bay Lightning reverted to being awful again, as they finished out of the playoffs for the 3rd time in 4 years with a -46 goal differential, and again he looks to be one of the lesser culprits when you consider the monster minutes he played on that club, leading the team in 5v5 time on ice at 19:02 per game.
During the NHL lockout of 2012/13, Hedman headed over to the KHL to join Barys Astana, where he was phenomenal, posting 21 points in 26 games and a +18 rating on a team that ultimately finished 6th in their conference and with a +14 goal differential. A sign of things to come for the still-just-22 defenceman?
Upon returning to the NHL in January, Hedman went pointless in his first three games, but posted 5 in the next 4 games. From that point on, he never went longer than three games without a point, extraordinary consistency from a blueliner. He wound up finishing the season with 20 points (for the 4th consecutive season) in just 44 games (for a much improved 0.45 points per game rate which would have translated to 37 over an 82 game schedule and a +1 rating on a Tampa team that once again finished on the outside looking in with a -2 goal differential.
This placed him joint 35th in scoring by NHL defencemen, surrounded by the likes of Michael Del Zotto, Dan Boyle, Brent Seabrook and Zdeno Chara. Lofty company, though of course that doesn’t really mean they’re comparable players overall. Still, it looks like Victor Hedman’s career is on the upswing after a highly respectable but seemingly unremarkable start to his career.
When you consider he is still just 22 years old — and most defenders don’t reach their prime years until about 25 — he still has a huge amount of potential to reach great heights.
BUT HOW DOES HE COMPARE TO HIS PEERS?
Well that’s the big question. The players listed at the top of this article have all received much love from the hockey community for their elite ability and/or potential, but where does Victor Hedman slot in?
There are all sorts of ways we can measure this, but there simply isn’t room — nor would I imagine people would bother taking the time! — to go through every single measure. Still, it pays to look into this a bit and so several measures will be used to try and gauge where Hedman fits.
Firstly, we’ll run Hedman through Hockey Reference’s Player Season Finder. This is a perfect tool for finding statistical comparables for players based on “pure” or basic stats like points, time on ice or games played.
Using this tool, I looked for NHL defenders who scored between 0.32 and 0.34 points per game between the ages of 18 and 24, and who played at least 200 NHL games in that span, since the 2000/01 season. Ten players arrived in the search results, take a look (sorted in order of Points Per Game):
- Cam Barker
- Victor Hedman
- Duncan Keith
- Dmitry Kulikov
- Paul Ranger
- Martin Skoula
- Ian White
- Eric Brewer
- Braydon Coburn
- Dmitri Kalinin
A mixed bag of results. Barker was a highly touted 3rd overall pick, and apart from one statistically outlying season, he’s been pretty awful in the NHL. Duncan Keith on the other hand, is arguably one of the NHL’s top defenceman, winning a Norris Trophy and being a vital component of the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks. Dmitry Kulikov is a rising star in the league, perhaps — like Hedman — underrated due to playing in the Sunshine State, he might not ever be a top defender as such but he is already a darn good one. Paul Ranger has yet to make his return to the NHL, though he likely will with the Leafs in 2013/14, but he was another guy with high expectations following a very good start to his career in Tampa, playing a strong two-way game.
Martin Skoula was a pretty decent two-way player for several NHL seasons, primarily for the Avalanche and the Wild. Ian White has had an up and down career, putting up some solid numbers but being unreliable defensively, and he struggled without Nick Lidstrom by his side this year. Eric Brewer, yet another Tampa Bay guy, has had a terrific career, perhaps not a favourite of many but he’s played nearly 900 games of smart, two-way hockey. Braydon Coburn is, like Brewer, a strong two-way presence, and a quality top-4 option, if not top-2 – probably the second best option on this list behind Keith. Finally, Dmitri Kalinin had a solid, if short, NHL career, scoring 162 points in 539 games, but on the whole was nothing to write home about.
I think we can all agree that Hedman has already far outstripped Barker’s career, and is ahead of fellow 2009 draftee Kulikov at this time, as well as having higher potential than Ranger displayed in his first few years. White, Skoula and Kalinin should represent the absolute low-end of what Hedman can achieve - indeed he is probably already ahead of them – and he should be able to reach Brewer’s standard, as soon as this season. Reaching Coburn’s status would be a decent achievement, and obviously the high-end would be to reach Keith’s Norris Trophy level of play.
But, once again, how does he compare to the elite young “D” in the league? The table below shows the total career statistics so far of 9 of the most highly celebrated young blueliners in the league, sorted by their career points per game rate.
Hedman perhaps doesn’t look like he’s quite in the same league as the other players, considering he’s played the second most games but scored points at the lowest rate, and has the second worst plus/minus rating. However, it’s worth looking at his team’s total plus minus since he’s been on the team, and it shows that along with PK Subban’s Canadiens the Lightning were the worst team on this list by that metric. Two seasons with goal differentials worse than -40 is pretty awful, and for Hedman to only be a -8? That’s actually fairly respectable.
But why isn’t Hedman scoring as much as the others? Let’s take a look at the break down of the minutes these players have been handed by their coaches. The first table is the total time on ice per game for each season of each players’ career, followed by the average.
Hedman is clearly not getting as much opportunity as most of the others on this list, being 36 seconds behind Tyler Myers, and the only reason Ekman-Larsson isn’t higher is due to a rookie season where he was extremely sheltered. He still plays significant minutes, and the number is (sort of) climbing, but perhaps there is some part of his game that is holding him back?
The next table shows the even strength minutes per game played by each player over their career followed by the average:
Sitting just below the mid-point of this table, Hedman is receiving pretty heavy usage at this discipline – the most important discipline, I might add – and is just 22 seconds behind the much-vaunted Alex Pietrangelo, whilst sitting well ahead of Tyler Myers, PK Subban and Ekman-Larsson (again OEL is trending upwards at a distinct rate). He looks much better by this measurement, and is clearly trusted by his coach to take on important minutes.
Up next, powerplay time:
Well, this might be the answer as to why Hedman’s TOI is so low. Despite being regarded as having strong offensive skills, he just hasn’t received much of a glance on the powerplay. From the looks of things he mostly plays on the second unit, with most minutes being dominated by the likes of Matt Carle and Sami Salo, though with Salo aging and Hedman showing signs of more offense this season, this could change in a hurry.
Defenders put up most of their points on the powerplay, and if they don’t get the time they simply don’t get the points. That he has managed to consistently put up 20+ points every season so far is actually very encouraging for the future, and more time with the likes of Martin St Louis, Steven Stamkos and (potentially) Jonathan Drouin should allow Hedman the opportunity at least to rack up some easy assists.
On a side note, it’s remarkable that Ryan McDonagh has managed to score 0.39 points per game and 0.4 points per game the last two seasons despite miniscule powerplay time; it’s scary to think what he could do with more opportunity.
Finally, let’s look at the penalty kill time of each player:
And here’s where Hedman adds to his time on ice. He’s a stalwart on the Lightning PK rotation, playing big minutes since he entered the league and being one of the two top options on his club the last two seasons. Of course, it’s not like he’s light years ahead of the other defenders on this list, in fact they’re remarkably well-grouped — except for the hilariously low total logged by Erik Karlsson, making his Norris win even more dubious — but it’s commendable for all of these players that they are so trusted at such a young age. Once again, the trajectory of Ekman-Larsson is both remarkable and scary in terms of how good he might be.
“Advanced” statistics are something of a contentious issue at the moment, with many fans arguing about how valuable they actually are. I firmly believe that when used in conjunction with basic statistics and viewing the player, they can be extremely valuable in providing context to why a player is playing at the level he is. They are of course not perfect, and they shouldn’t be used on their own to evaluate players, but stay with me and you should be able to see some interesting things.
A very quick lesson in the statistics about to be used:
- Corsi – Corsi is very simply “attempted shot differential” at 5v5 play, i.e. the sum of shots on net, blocked shots and missed shots.
- Relative Corsi - This is attempted shot differential at 5v5, but adjusted to account for how the rest of his team performs when he’s not on the ice. Valuable as even if a player has a negative Corsi, using Relative Corsi still shows us whether his team was better with him on the ice or not, pretty much removing the issue of whether or not his team was good or bad.
- Quality of Competition (CorsiRel) - this is the level of competition that a player was going up against, according to the Relative Corsi of that opposition.
A lot of people don’t see the value in using shots to value players, but the truth is it provides far more data than just goals, acting as a proxy for puck possession and over time aligns itself very, very well with the success of a team over time. The teams with better puck possession almost always perform better over the long term than teams that don’t.
The following chart shows the Quality of Competition taken on by each player during each year of their relative careers.
Hedman was taking on tougher competition than McDonagh, Myers Karlsson, Subban, Doughty and Carlson were in their 3 years, and was still slightly ahead of Karlsson and Myers this past year, and not trailing Doughty by far. Impressive company to be keeping, and it’s also interesting to note Subban’s drop in quality of competition this year, clearly helping him on his way to a great season that saw him capture the Norris Trophy.
Now we’ve looked at that, let’s examine each player’s year over year Corsi numbers:
This is a number that can fluctuate quite significantly depending on the quality of the team, and that’s clearly visible with Hedman’s Corsi trajectory: it was poor in his first year, very good in his second, awful in his third, and only slightly better this year, in line with the performance of the Lightning really. This is where it’s easy to see the hype with players like Subban, Karlsson and Doughty, as they routinely dominate in shot differentials, in other words the team outshoots their opposition far more than they get outshot when they are on the ice. Hedman isn’t at that level yet, but Tampa Bay has been a far, far worse team overall than Montreal, Ottawa and LA.
And here’s a look at the same chart but using Relative Corsi:
A far more favourable look at Hedman here, as he is in the same company as Doughty, Myers, Pietrangelo, Ekman-Larsson and Carlson. This does not mean that he’s necessarily as good as them, just as it does not mean he’s necessarily worse than them – as mentioned, these stats aren’t a be-all-and-end-all of player quality – but it does illustrate how much of an effect each player had for their team. Hedman has always been a net-positive for his team when on the ice given that his Relative Corsi has always been above zero, or in other words he consistently drives play in the right direction (i.e. towards the opposition net) as compared to the rest of his team-mates.
Karlsson’s play in this regard is remarkable, with the effect he has on sh0t differential being through the roof – although we may see evidence as to why exactly that might be next.
Rob Vollman, of ESPN Insider and Hockey Abstract, has devised Player Usage Charts, which use the information provided by sites such as Behind The Net to make graphs showing the situations that players were used in. The vertical axis shows quality of competition, the horizontal shows offensive zonestart percentage (i.e. how often a player starts his shift in the offensive zone), the colour of the bubble represents their Relative Corsi number (the bluer the bubble the better the shot differential, the more red it is – you get the idea) and the size of the bubble represents total Time on Ice.
Generally speaking, a player with a bubble in the bottom right quadrant was receiving sheltered minutes (more offensive zonestarts, easier competition), bottom left is less sheltered (tougher zonestarts, but still easier competition), top right is “two way” (i.e. more offensive zonestarts, but tougher competition) and top left is a “shutdown” type role (i.e. more defensive zonestarts, tougher competition).
Below is the Player Usage Chart for the 2012/13 season for those players listed above:
All of these players are clearly top end guys in terms of shot differential, all displaying solid blue bubbles. Subban and Karlsson are the class of the group here, as their bubbles are darker than the rest, but they do have the benefit of playing easier competition than the rest and with Karlsson in particular having the major advantage of nearly 58% offensive zonestarts. Ekman-Larson really is a remarkable player, having to take on extremely tough competition with less than 46% offensive zonestarts and still being able to post a positive Relative Corsi!
This is also where Hedman really needs to earn some love. He is taking on the toughest zonestart of the group by far — less than 43% — along with pretty tough competition and still is coming out ahead on shot differential. Consider that he is starting more often than not in his own zone, and has the skill on a bad team to get the play going the right way as often as he does, that is a quality player.
One worthy of being in the conversation with the rest of the league’s best, perhaps?
Victor Hedman has not yet had the success or league-wide recognition yet that a former 2nd overall pick might have garnered, but that does not mean he is not a success. In fact, I would state that Victor Hedman has already covered his draft bet. At any point in the draft, at the end of the day when drafting a player you simply want him to be an everyday NHL player who can have a positive impact on play. Victor Hedman has shown that and more, and is still only 22. His best days are likely ahead of him.
This is not to say he will become a Drew Doughty type superstar, an elite offensive talent like Karlsson, or a top shutdown guy like Ekman-Larsson or McDonagh, but he is certainly looking like he could be. Everything about Hedman is trending upwards: his scoring, his defensive play, his responsibility, his role on the team.
He may well simply stay at the level he is now; that is, a borderline top pairing player.
I’d be willing to bet however that the best of Victor Hedman is yet to come.
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