Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman would like to forget last season. He missed significant time with a concussion and things turned ugly in Tampa Bay’s end of the ice, largely due to shaky goaltending.
Hedman, 22, regressed from plus-3 in his second NHL season to minus-9 last season in 81 games. The Lightning acquired Anders Lindback during the summer to settle the goaltending situation and Hedman seemed poised to break out after averaging 23 points in his first three seasons.
He showed signs of growth last season, scoring 17 points with a plus-3 rating in 29 games after the All-Star break. Perhaps he will play a bigger role with the man advantage this season after scoring just eight power-play points since arriving from Modo Hockey Ornskoldsvik.
Here are some other defensemen just hitting their NHL prime:
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes: He scored five times in March to signal his imminent arrival as an elite offensive talent. He finished with 13 goals and 19 assists while playing all 82 games during his second NHL season. After averaging 0.36 points and 1.56 shots on goal per game before January 1, he finished up by averaging 0.42 points and 2 SOG during the new year. His role on the power play increased from 1:51 per game through December to 2:16 per game after that. The Coyotes lost some offensive firepower over the summer, but Ekman-Larsson should only get better.
Ryan McDonagh, Rangers: He wasn’t a huge scorer at the University of Wisconsin (46 points in 119 games), but he broke through in his first full season with the Rangers. He scored seven goals and added 25 assists while playing all 82 games. The year before he scored just 17 while splitting the season between Hartford of the AHL and New York. Last season he scored just two points on the power play, so it is difficult to project consistently high offensive production from him. On the other hand he is plus-41 in first 122 games and should flourish as a two-way D-man.
Cam Fowler, Ducks: Anaheim tanked for much of last season, causing massive statistical regression for key Anaheim players. Fowler’s production slipped from 40 points as a rookie to 29 in his second season. He scored just 11 power-play points after producing 23 the season before. He had more shots on goal (128 to 123) than his rookie season, but he scored half as many goals (five compared to 10). He needs to clean up his minus-53 rating and become more physical. He earned just 38 PIMs his first two seasons.
Jared Spurgeon, Wild: This pint-sized offensive specialist became critical to Minnesota’s power play last season. He jumped from 12 points in 53 games during his first NHL season to 23 points (12 on the power play) in 70 games last season. He showed his offensive potential by scoring 13 points in 28 games in November and December. Coach Mike Yeo said he would give Spurgeon first crack at teaming with newcomer Ryan Suter in training camp – if there is a training camp this fall.
Luca Sbisa, Ducks: Way back in 2006-07 he played in seven games in the Swiss “A” league as a teenager. Then he came to North America to play in the Western Hockey League. The Flyers drafted him 19th overall and put him right to work, playing him in 39 games that season. Philadelphia moved him to Anaheim as part of the Chris Pronger deal, raising expectations for him. As a Duck, Sbisa improved from 11 points in 68 games two seasons back to 24 points (21 at even strength) in 80 games last season. He improved as Anaheim improved last season. After scoring just nine points in first 37 games last season, he scored 16 in the next 43. Sbisa earned a minus-5 rating overall, but he was plus-4 after the All-Star break. He should become a key part of Anaheim's bounce back.
Jamie McBain, Hurricanes: He is still another product of the University of Wisconsin, the noted cradle of NHL defensemen. He scored 37 points in 40 games in his last season as a Badger and he scored 40 points in 68 games during his second season at Albany of the AHL. He faded last season, scoring just nine points in 31 games after the All-Star break. But McBain showed his upside while scoring 10 points in 13 December games. After scoring 57 points with minus-15 rating in his first two NHL seasons, he could take a big step forward with Carolina reloaded offensively.
Nikita Nikitin, Blue Jackets: He played five full seasons for Omsk Avangard in the KHL before coming to North America, so he was a mostly finished product. The Blues relegated him to an extra D-man role last season and he scored no points in seven games. Then he blossomed after moving Columbus in a deal for Kris Russell. He scored 32 points with a minus-5 rating in 54 games. After the All-Star break he scored 14 points in 23 games with a plus-2 rating. He can improve on his nine power-play points as the team’s third-best offensive defenseman behind with Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski.
Jeff Petry, Oilers: The 45th overall 2006 NHL draft should be ready to find a role on a potentially explosive offensive team. He played two seasons in the USHL and three seasons at Michigan State before turning pro. He split his first full pro season between Oklahoma City (24 points in 41 games) and Edmonton (five points in 35 games). He is minus-19 in 108 NHL games, so his defense must improve. Last season he scored 25 points in 73 games for the Oilers. He scored 11 points in 42 games before the All-Star break and 14 points in 31 games after it.
Nick Leddy, Blackhawks: He wasn’t a prolific scorer at the University of Minnesota (11 points in 30 games in 2009-10), but he emerged nicely after splitting the 2010-11 season at Rockford (10 points in 22 games) of the AHL and Chicago (seven points in 46 games). In 82 games last season he scored three goals and added 34 assists in 82 games. He started fast, scoring 16 points in his first 25 games. He faded late, scoring just 12 points with a minus-6 rating in 32 games after the All-Star break. Leddy had 11 power play assists last season and the Blackhawks could be much better on the power play.