ANAHEIM -- When you watch him night after night, you are struck by the poise, the ability to move the puck, the sense of when to jump into the play, when to hold back, and you have to remind yourself that Hampus Lindholm is just 21 years old.
As you watch him emerge from the shadows of this playoff stage, perhaps introducing us to the spring of Hampus Lindholm, you’re reminded that it’s probably a good thing he didn’t become a funeral director like his dad back in Helsingborg, Sweden.
Lindholm, tall, well-spoken, blessed with a subtle sense of humor smiles at the idea.
“Yeah, I think I’m glad that I kept to the hockey instead of doing that,” Lindholm said.
Lindholm left home at age 16 and, unlike most North American junior players, he lived first with a teammate in an apartment and then the second season away from home he lived on his own.
It is a growth curve that explains at least in part his self-possession, maturity at least away from the rink. He was fortunate, he figures, to have moved to a town just 35 minutes away from his hometown, whereas some of his peers might have been nine hours or more from their homes.
“I learned to cook and stuff in school and my parents had been good kind of teaching me what to do, take care of myself, and my parents weren’t that far away,” he explained.
They would come to watch him play and chat after, and occasionally his mother would drop in unannounced at the apartment to check on things and maybe bring a little care package.
“That was always nice,” Lindholm said.
His father had been in the funeral business and then started his own funeral home with his brother, Lindholm’s uncle. As he was going through the rounds of interviews leading up to the 2012 draft and was being asked about his home life and upbringing, Lindholm joked that it was kind of interesting that his father was a funeral director and his mother worked in a home for the aged where, well, there might be potential clients for his father’s business.
OK, maybe it wasn’t that funny.
“It was a bad joke,” Lindholm said with a grin and a shrug of the shoulders. “You know at the draft everyone’s tense, so kind of loosen them up a little.”
The Ducks had been watching Lindholm’s evolution even before his draft year. They felt he was a late bloomer but loved the way he skated and his size -- he is 6-foot-3.
But as Lindholm’s draft year progressed, it became clear to GM Bob Murray and the Ducks’ scouting staff that others were smitten with Lindholm as well and that there would be no sneaking the player onto their roster with a late pick.
“He just kept rising and rising,” Murray told ESPN.com. “I don’t think we were the only team to have him that high."
Nope. In fact, several GMs told ESPN.com they were not at all surprised when the Ducks selected Lindholm with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft because they too, believed there was something special about the young man.
“He had so many things to offer. Skating, No. 1,” Murray said. “His willingness to compete.”
Was Lindholm nervous during the draft process?
“Not really," he said. "I was just kind of excited. I wanted to come to somewhere where you really felt that they believe in you and wanted you to come to their team. You don’t want to be that guy, 'Oh, we didn’t get that guy, let’s take that guy instead.'”
Not to worry there. The fit with the Ducks has been a hand in glove or, if you will, foot in skate.
Lindholm had worked with former NHLer Kenny Jonsson while playing in Sweden with the Rogle BK club, the same club Jonsson returned to when he tired of the NHL life 10 years ago. It was a similar role as coach/adviser that Lindholm now enjoys with another pretty good NHL defenseman: Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer.
After spending a year with Trent Yawney and the Ducks’ AHL affiliate in Norfolk in 2012-13, Lindholm joined the big club last season.
His ascension has caught many by surprise even if Lindholm himself seems nonplussed by all the attention he has garnered in recent months.
“Nobody expected him to get to the level he’s at so early,” Murray said.
As most hockey folk will tell you, developing a young defenseman is a much less linear process than a forward. The position demands more of young men. The mistakes can be more crushing to a young player’s psyche, given that mistakes by defensemen often end up costing their teams goals.
But his maturity and his attitude, said Murray, have paved an early path to success for Lindholm.
“He’s got a chance to be a top-four defenseman for a long time,” he said.
Perhaps because the evolutionary path is never a certain thing for defenders, you’ll find GMs and coaches circumspect about tooting the horns of their young defenders unnecessarily.
Better to keep players from thinking they’re too special too early. Better to keep them focused on the process of getting better than hearing how great they are and what they might become.
But it doesn’t take long to find many who believe Lindholm isn’t just destined for a nice career but a great one.
When he scored an important insurance marker in Game 2 of this second-round series against the Calgary Flames, with a wicked, high shot from deep in the slot, teammate Ryan Kesler said simply this: “special goal from a special player.”
Lindholm has recorded points in five of the Ducks’ eight playoff games as they have rolled to a 7-1 record with a chance to eliminate the Flames on Sunday night and advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since winning their first Stanley Cup in 2007. Opening faceoff is 10 ET.
Longtime NHL netminder Brian Hayward has been watching the Ducks for many years as a broadcast analyst and he sees a young player who has almost limitless potential.
“I just think he’s a very unique player. He’s special,” Hayward told ESPN.com. “I see him as someone who has Norris Trophy-type capabilities."
In just a second season, Hayward has seen Lindholm’s understanding of the North American game go up exponentially. He recalled how in his rookie season Lindholm would make plays that left him susceptible to punishing hits from opposing players. That happens much less now.
Go back over the years and identify Stanley Cup winners with a dominant stud-like defenseman on their roster. There are many.
Chris Pronger when he was with the Ducks.
Lindholm could be that kind of centerpiece player for a Ducks team that has quietly built one of the most impressive emerging young blue-line corps in the league with Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and prospects Josh Manson -- son of longtime NHLer Dave Manson -- and the top defender in the Western Hockey League this season, Shea Theodore.
Hayward suggests that Lindholm, along with Jacob Trouba, another defenseman from that 2012 draft class, might be two of the most impressive young defensemen in the league right now.
“I honestly believe the sky’s the limit” for Lindholm, Hayward said.
Lindholm is not flawless, of course.
In Game 4 against the Flames, he had a glorious scoring chance early in the game and blasted a shot high and wide and later was beaten wide by rookie Johnny Gaudreau in a play that led to a Flames goal. But his hockey brain is big and his desire to get better and better -- maybe to be the best -- is big, too.
Later in Game 4, a tight affair that could have swung the momentum of the series in either direction, Lindholm was on the ice helping to kill a key 5-on-3 Calgary power play in the third period.
Only defense partner Francois Beauchemin is averaging more time among Ducks than Lindholm’s 21:25 a night this spring.
Beauchemin was part of that Ducks Cup-winning team in 2007 and he sees the kinds of traits that those marquee defensemen on other championship teams possess in his young defense partner.
“Yeah. No, not too much pressure,” Beauchemin said with a laugh, careful not to pile on the expectations needlessly.
“He certainly does have the potential of becoming that type of defenseman. ... In five years from now, I’m sure Hampus will be if everything goes well and he keep improving, obviously he’s got the capability of becoming [among] the top defensemen in the league,” Beauchemin predicted.
“He’s just really down to earth. You can see he was raised ... I’m sure he’s got great parents that raised him the right way. He takes the positive out of it and we try to keep him down to earth at the same time, but he does a great job of doing it. Doesn’t get too excited when it’s not time."
Top-scoring Duck Corey Perry loves the confidence with which Lindholm approaches his game.
“When you have confidence, you can do lots of things,” Perry said. "He’s a guy that when he’s rushing the puck, when he’s on his toes and jumping into the play with that offensive style of play, he’s going to be successful. I don’t think you can ask for much more out of him right now. He’s been everything we’ve asked and he’s doing more."
Lindholm certainly doesn’t seek out conversation on his growing reputation as a top young defender this spring and a potentially key part of a long playoff run. But neither does he shrink from discussing how he feels he’s evolved as a player and person.
“I think I’m a little bit more prepared,” he said. "I have a [few] more games under my belt, I feel stronger and faster. I think that has a lot to do with it.
“I’m just playing my game. I have a little bigger role this year than last year, I think. That way I’m taking a bit more offensive and a little bit more defensive responsibility, I would say. So maybe that’s a little bit different from last year. And as I said I feel a bit stronger and faster. I feel last year when we got [beat] out the second round, I kind of prepared for this time of the year all season.”