The Man Behind the Mask: Johan Hedberg

The NHLHS Man Behind The Mask series is a profile on some of the best goalies in the league to ever wear the “mask”. We hope you enjoy the latest installment of the NHLHS MBTM series.

The 1994 entry draft was a solid one for goaltenders.  Jose Theodore was chosen in the 2nd round by Montreal.  In the 5th round, the Dallas Stars chose Marty Turco, and four goaltenders were chosen in the 9th round, three of those eventual starters: Tim Thomas by the Nordiques, Evgeny Nabokov by the Sharks, and Tomas Vokoun by the Habs.

None of them are having a season like Johan Hedberg.

Johan “Moose” Hedberg was drafted in the 9th round, 218th overall, by the Philadelphia Flyers.  While his compatriots are suffering through either average seasons (Thomas, Theodore), off play (Turco, some can argue Nabokov), or suffering behind sub-par teams (Vokoun), Hedberg is literally having the best year of his career.  In this, his 9th year in the NHL, Hedberg has only once had a goals against average lower as this season’s 2.67, and he has never had a save percentage as high as his .914.  He’s putting up solid numbers behind an Atlanta Thrashers defense who allows 33.4 shots a game, which is 29th in the league.  While wrangling with all of this pressure, the 36 year old goaltender has grabbed the reigns as Atlanta’s current #1 goaltender in the midst of a playoff run.

Familiar territory indeed for the consummate professional.

He was called up at the end of the season in 2001 for the Pittsburgh Penguins from the Manitoba Moose.  It was a bit of a late call-up, so Hedberg did not have time to adjust his goaltender’s mask, which had a giant moose noticeably painted on it.  The fans in Pittsburgh took to cheering “Moooooooooose!” after every solid save, and it stuck – Hedberg’s prefered nickname of “Jo Jo” was no more.

As a welcome to the NHL, Hedberg was treated to playing 18 Stanley Cup playoff games, where the young, new starter flourished under pressure.  Despite the fact that the Penguins were defeated by the eventual champion New Jersey Devils, the improbable run of the young goalie sincerely captured the hearts of Penguins fans, who are still known to sport the occasional Hedberg jersey.

His second year with the Pittsburgh Penguins saw him take the starting role over Jean-Sebastien Aubin, who was suffering from a very poor outing his 3rd NHL season.  Hedberg’s Penguins did not make the playoffs that season, however in his 66 GP he finished with a 2.75 GAA and .904 SV% – a standout on a team who went 28-41-8-5.

In 2003-2004, Hedberg was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for a 2nd round selection in the 2004 draft.  He only played one season with the Canucks, having a solid 2.52 GAA, but only in 21 games played.  He only got the chance to play 2 games in the playoffs that season, with a .922 SV% and 2.45 GAA  The next season he left for the Dallas Stars, only playing in 19 games and missing the chance to play goal in the playoffs for the 2nd year in a row.

He was signed to a free agent contract in Atlanta in 2006 by Don Waddell, who was looking for a solid mentor to their new starter, the 2001 #2 overall pick Kari Lehtonen.   This first season saw Hedberg step in as a solid backup and immediate fan favorite, and it also allowed Hedberg to return to the playoffs.  The Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in the first round, but Hedberg’s experience still shone through.  Lehtonen was young and shaky, as his 5.59 GAA and .849 SV% showed.  Hedberg, though, still had a .928 SV% and a 2.45 GAA

That season was the last Hedberg had of around 20 games.  Lehtonen’s wonky groin caused him to miss many games the following season, and in 2008 Hedberg was called on to start 36 games.  The following year, he was required to play 33 due to a groin issue, a herniated disc, and a concussion all to the young Lehtonen.  2008-2009 saw Hedberg play mentor to the young Ondrej Pavelec, and that role has been continuing this season.

Pavelec is still young (only 22) and has a lot more experience waiting for him to really solidify that ability that is so apparent in flashes.  It’s ill-advised to lead a team that has been flirting with the playoffs all season with a young goalie like Pavelec, especially when his strong start sputtered.  Hedberg was called upon to step in, and like the consummate professional he is. has helped the Thrashers nip at the top 8 nearly all season long – both with and without Ilya Kovalchuk.

Hedberg is appreciated by the fans, winning the February Atlanta Thrashers Fan Club player of the month this season.  Prior to the conclusion of last season, Hedberg won the players’ player award two years running for his quiet and dignified clubhouse leadership, and in 2008 he was the Thrashers’ Masterton Award nominee – which there are rumblings that he’ll be nominated for again.  It would not be surprising for Hedberg to win the team MVP as voted on by the fans – the first time in quite a while that honor has not gone to Kovalchuk.

Hedberg is quiet and always dignified – and when he gets riled up, he always promptly apologizes even when he doesn’t need to.  Quick to share the credit when there’s a win, and probably too quick to shoulder the blame for a loss, he’s often given credit in the locker room for being one of the team’s top leaders.

Rumors have it that Waddell and Hedberg’s agent, Jay Grossman, might work towards a contract extension for Hedberg this offseason.  Moose is set to become a UFA, and this season has warranted a bit of a payraise to the goaltender’s modest salary of just over a million dollars.

Hedberg is a beloved player in Atlanta.  It’s not often that you see a demand for merchandise surrounding a backup goaltender, but Hedberg jerseys and shirts abound in the Team Gear store.  Fans in Atlanta hope that Moose stays on, either in goal as a mentor or as a goaltender coach to Ondrej Pavelec.  He’s shown that he still has a lot to teach.

Make sure you are ready for the game by equipping the best goalie masks in town.

Laura Astorian
NHLHS Thrashers/Blues Correspondent
Twitter: @hildymac