It isn’t often that you enter the second half of the Stanley Cup Finals and the top contenders for the Conn Smythe Award are defensemen.
Defensemen are generally overlooked when we look for the NHL playoff MVP — blueliners have only won nine out of 49 times — but through four games of the Stanley Cup Final, both Victor Hedman and Duncan Keith will win the award should one of their teams hoist the Cup.
Keith’s name is not surprising to anybody, but Hedman is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Shockingly, we are only 15 months removed from Sweden leaving Hedman off the 2014 Olympic team and his performance in these playoffs is just more proof that the decision was absurd.
Tyler Johnson was an early Conn Smythe favorite and easily recognizable because of his offensive production, but Hedman has been the most dominant player on a great Tampa Bay Lightning roster. Through three rounds of the playoffs, the Lightning have continually owned the flow of play and this showed up in my expected goal totals of my Stanley Cup Preview. The 24-year-old has been a driving force behind this.
Hedman has been Mr. Everything for the Lightning during these playoffs. He’s anchored both special teams units and dominated even strength minutes against top quality opposition. Looking at his usage rates, he continually draws the top assignments. In the first round, he got a steady dosage of Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Tatar. Against Montreal, Hedman was tasked with shutting down Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. Versus the Rangers, he lined up against Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider as well as significant time versus the Rick Nash line. Nothing has changed in the Stanley Cup Final as Hedman has drawn Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad.
Looking at his quality of competition, it is incredible how much he has pushed the play in a positive direction at even strength during these playoffs. He has outstanding possession numbers as well as a strong goal differential, but because goal differential can be influenced by shooting streaks and luck, I like to separate the luck and compare his results with expected goal totals. I create an expected goal total based on pre-shot movement and location and use the red/green definition to illustrate it.
Large green circles indicate the highest quality opportunities while smaller red ones indicate low quality chances. If the expected shooting percentage was below 5%, I didn’t even map the shot attempt.
Through the playoffs and first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, Hedman has been absolutely dominant. We can see above that Hedman is providing dominant defensive coverage for goaltender Ben Bishop and limiting his exposure to forced backside recoveries, rebound opportunities while clearing his crease for great sightlines. Hedman also is strong at limiting the damage on controlled zone entries when he allows them. Offensively, Hedman has made numerous highlight reel plays which exhibit his transition ability through either carrying the puck or stretching the defense with long passes to create high-end opportunities.
It can be difficult to assess individual players because teammates can impact his production, so I ran his numbers with and without his most common defensive partner Anton Stralman and Johnson.
In both scenarios, Hedman’s numbers were unaffected, but Johnson and Stralman had a reduction in production. Nobody on the Lightning has been more valuable or dominant than Hedman during the 2014-15 NHL Playoffs. To put his performance in perspective, I mapped Keith in the exact same manner.
This isn’t a straight comparison and needs to be placed in context because the Lightning are not asking Hedman to do what the Blackhawks are asking Keith to do. Keith’s numbers will have a drag on them because he has been carrying staggering minutes. He’s anchoring a core of four defensemen whereas Hedman at times has had the comfort of seven defensemen to help limit his minutes. Keith has been asked to play half the game for 21 games and has still managed to maintain a positive differential and is a worthy Conn Smythe winner if Chicago manages to win another championship.
Hedman has been flat out dominant during this Lightning Cup run, dominance worthy of legitimate Niklas Lidstrom comparisons. If the Lightning manage to win their second Stanley Cup, this isn’t close. Hedman is the MVP.