“When I watch him now, I think about how the Islanders could have taken him at No. 1 in the 2009 [NHL] Draft,” said Brian Lawton, the general manager of the Lightning at the time. “But they chose John Tavares, and Victor dropped to us at No. 2.
“To be honest with you, I could not have been more comfortable picking second under any scenario because I felt so comfortable with Victor. That’s the honest-to-God truth. Even though we didn’t win the lottery, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s probably the best thing that could have ever happened to us.'”
It’s paying off now, with Hedman and the Lightning leading the best-of-7 series 3-1 and looking to advance to the Stanley Cup Final with a win in Game 5 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS) at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.
Hedman, who leads the NHL this postseason with a plus-16 rating and is first among those whose teams are still playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with an average of 25:42 of ice time per game, has been a force against the Islanders. He has four points (two goals, two assists) in the series, and his smothering defensive play has been a big reason the Islanders’ top line of Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle has been limited to one goal, when Eberle scored in an 8-2 loss in Game 1.
“He’s so good at both ends of the ice,” Lawton said. “You could see that potential in him even back in his draft year. I agree 100 percent it takes defensemen longer to develop than forwards. Well, he developed into one of the best.”
Tavares no longer plays for the Islanders, having signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018.
“We had a contingency plan in case the Islanders passed on Tavares, but I was never concerned that was going to happen,” Lawton said. “I spoke to (then-Islanders GM) Garth Snow a number of times, and it was very obvious to me [whom] they were taking.”
Not everyone was as convinced of that as Lawton was.
“I remember hearing from the media apparently at the time that the Islanders were debating between Tavares and Hedman,” said Martin Biron, a goalie on the 2009-10 Islanders. “But my feeling at training camp through ownership, Garth, everyone, was that they had planned on drafting Tavares from the moment they knew they had the No. 1 pick.
“Now, was that a way to promote the whole thing? Maybe. But I remember the first couple of years people were talking that Hedman was just OK. He was not a superstar. And defensemen don’t usually turn into superstars like Victor Hedman for a few years. I think the Islanders were like, ‘We wanted a stud forward like Tavares from the get-go, we always wanted him,’ and I think that’s a narrative they always had.”
Whatever rumblings were coming out of Long Island, Lawton wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted to make sure Lightning management knew as much as it could about Tavares, Hedman and forward Matt Duchene, the three prospects they were considering at No. 2.
“We brought all three down to Tampa, which is not uncommon,” Lawton said. “The uncommon thing is, we brought all three of them down together. All three of them were down together for a few days, and we went through a process we had at the time to evaluate young people. They all did incredible.”
A year earlier, the Lightning selected forward Steven Stamkos No. 1 in the 2008 NHL Draft. Tavares and Stamkos had been friends since their minor hockey days in the Toronto area, and they were teammates with the Ontario Blues summer league team coached by Steven’s dad, Chris, in 2002.
“John and [Stamkos] had played together before, that’s all I heard about. If we could get these two guys together … trust me, that wasn’t a bad thought either,” Lawton said. “But I knew it wasn’t going to happen. And we knew we were going to get Victor. And I was super happy about it.
“I often wonder if we had picked first, to take Victor. Our scouts were overwhelmingly convinced that John was the best player by far. After that there were conflicting opinions who was the second-best player. But there was never conflict for me. I knew [Snow] was going to take John, and it was the best thing. It was the best scenario for us. We got a guy we wanted … It’s just something in your life that when it happens, you have a great feeling about it.”
After the Islanders selected Tavares, there were internal discussions within the Lightning organization that maybe Duchene was the way to go. Not to Lawton, who stuck with his gut feeling and had Tampa Bay select Hedman.
The rest is history.
The 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) scored by Tavares in his nine seasons with New York (2009-18) rank fifth in Islanders history and first among players who didn’t play on their four consecutive Stanley Cup championship teams from 1980-83. He led the Islanders in scoring seven times and was captain from 2013-18 before leaving as a free agent.
Biron said Tavares wasn’t just the best pick for the Islanders at the time, he was the only pick. New York was coming off a 26-47-9 season. Their leading goal-scorer was Kyle Okposo with 18.
In his rookie season, Tavares scored 54 points (24 goals, 30 assists), and the Islanders finished 34-37-11.
“I’ll tell you this: The year I was there, if we didn’t have John Tavares, we weren’t an NHL team,” Biron said. “I’m sorry to say that. We had some good players like Doug Weight, but overall, that’s the truth.
“If we would have had Victor Hedman, he would have been great for the future of the team, but people came to see John Tavares. That was the main reason they came to see us. Period.”
Hedman has more than lived up to his billing in Tampa Bay. In a 2009 draft class that featured Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan Ellis, Tyson Barrie, Nick Leddy, Mattias Ekholm and Sami Vatanen, he leads defensemen in points with 473 (105 goals, 368 assists) and in rating at plus-116.
Hedman won the Norris Trophy voted as the best defenseman in the NHL in 2017-18. The 29-year-old, now in his 11th NHL season, has been a finalist for the award four consecutive seasons and is up against Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators and John Carlson of the Washington Capitals this season.
If the Lightning defeat the Islanders, it will be their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final with Hedman. They lost the 2015 Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
“I think Lightning fans are happy the way things played out with the guy we picked,” said Lawton, now an analyst with NHL Network. “And he’s not done yet. Not in this series. Not in these playoffs. And certainly not in his career.”