Through his first 55 games this season, Brandon Hagel experienced an offensive burst.
He scored 21 goals with the Blackhawks — shattering his previous career high of nine — and added 16 assists. But when Hagel was traded to the Lightning before the deadline, in exchange for rookie forwards Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh and two first-round picks, he gradually inherited a new role: containing the opponent’s top line.
Hagel has just 12 points in his 39 games (regular season and playoffs) with the Lightning, but he, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn have formed a checking line primarily tasked with stopping instead of scoring. After shutting down the Mika Zibanejad line in the Eastern Conference final, they’ll likely shadow an Avalanche line that includes Nathan MacKinnon in the Stanley Cup final.
“You want to be a big part,” Hagel said Monday. “You want to be a huge part of why the team has success in being able to shut down, if that becomes the case, the MacKinnon line. It’ll be a challenge that we want to take and run with.”
Lightning assistant coach Jeff Halpern said he probably learned the most about Hagel during the Rangers series, watching him pair with Cirelli and Killorn to forecheck a line that included Zibanejad (29) and Chris Kreider (52), who combined for 81 goals during the regular season. Neither scored in the last three games of the series, and Rangers head coach Gerrard Gallant placed the two on different lines early in Game 6 to try to spark their offense.
Hagel’s line works, he said, because all three play the same way — tenaciously attacking the puck, as “it’s way easier to play with the puck than without it.” It’s a different role than the one he held with the Blackhawks, but he said goal production from he and his linemates eventually will follow.
“At the end of the day, we’re in the Stanley Cup final, so that’s all that matters to a lot of us in the playoffs,” Hagel said. “Especially myself, I don’t really care what I do.”