Hedberg enters free agency after solid season

Johan Hedberg is not ready to grow up.

He still loves putting on the equipment, something he’s done since his two older brothers made him play goal while growing up in Sweden. After the season the veteran goaltender just turned in, he will certainly be dressing for more NHL games.

The big question now: Will he be putting on a Thrashers uniform to do so?

“I’m 37 years old soon,” Hedberg said earlier this season. “I have no idea what I want to do when I grow up. I’m going to face that reality whenever it comes, hopefully in a few years more. Hockey was my life. That’s what I’ve loved to do. That’s what I love to do.”

Hedberg is one of nine Thrashers who will become unrestricted free agents on July 1. He had one of the best seasons in his nine-year NHL career. A .915 save percentage was the highest he's ever posted and a 2.62 goals-against is his second-best average. This season ranked second only to 2001-02 with the Penguins, his only year as a No. 1 goaltender, when he posted career-highs in wins, minutes played and shutouts.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hedberg said Sunday, indicating that he had not been approached by Thrashers management about a new contract. “It’s not in my hands. I think the team, [general manager] Don [Waddell] and [associate GM Rick] Dudley have some ideas what the team needs and what direction they want to go in. Where I fit in that picture, I don’t know. If does feel like we have unfinished business, especially for a guy like myself that’s been here and seen the ups and downs and had a chance to go to the playoffs with Atlanta. It was a great experience. ... I want to do it again.”

It was Hedberg who the Thrashers counted on down the stretch. He started 22 of the final 32 games and went 11-8-3.

It had originally been a crowded race for the goaltender positions right from the beginning. The team brought seven goalies to training camp. One by one they released or re-assigned until only three remained – Ondrej Pavelec, an injured Kari Lehtonen and Hedberg. When Lehtonen finally returned to health, he was traded to Dallas in February.

“Coming into this year I knew Pavelec was knocking on the door,” Hedberg said. “I didn’t know Kari was going to be hurt. I felt this was a big year for me if I wanted to stay in the league or else I was probably on my way out. I wanted to come in with an attitude where I was strong from the start -- that I can do this and I want to do this.”

Pavelec started the majority of the games early in the season, playing 18 of the first 22. As the season wore on and Pavelec had bouts of inconsistency, coach John Anderson looked to Hedberg.

“We weren't sure what was happening with Lehtonen all year and he really picked up the slack,” Anderson said. “He had a great year for us.”

The increased playing time was a new role for Hedberg, who spent much of his NHL career as a back up.

After an injury in 2003 in Pittsburgh, the Penguins drafted Marc-Andre Fluery and Hedberg was sent to Vancouver. There he played a season behind Dan Cloutier. He signed with Dallas after the lockout, but played behind Marty Turco for a season. When he came to Atlanta for the 2006-07 season, he was behind Lehtonen.

“Obviously, I wanted to play, but I was where I wanted to be and that was playing in the NHL,” Hedberg said. “... Maybe I didn’t deserve the chance [to be the No. 1 goaltender]. Obviously, I could have played better in Vancouver. I ran into injuries. I probably didn’t play as well as I wanted to. When Dallas signed me as a backup, I didn’t do anything to prove them wrong It’s been fun," he said. "Not always a lot of ice time, but it’s been a great life. I enjoy so much coming to the rink and working hard and waiting for the opportunities and just being part of the team has been a great feeling.”

Hedberg, who teammate Slava Kozlov called “the mortar of our team,” had to be told by the Thrashers coaching staff to cut back on his workouts this season. Always the first on the practice ice and one of the last to leave, they feared he would wear down.

Whether Hedberg returns to Atlanta for a fifth season or goes to another city, he proved he still has game.

“My goal is to keep playing and keep playing as long as I feel I can contribute,” Hedberg said. “The day where I feel like I’m not good enough to play on the level I expect to play, then I don’t want to be anyone’s burden. I don’t want to be somebody they look at and say ‘This guy should have retired a long time ago.’ I don’t want to be that. Right now, I feel like I still want to play and I get better at a lot of things.”