When the Lightning placed forward Brandon Hagel on the team’s top scoring line before the second game of the season, pairing him with the dynamic scoring duo of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, it wasn’t just an experiment.
The Lightning had been tinkering with the idea throughout the postseason. Before coming to Tampa in last season’s deadline deal with Chicago, Hagel had meshed with elite playmaking forward Patrick Kane, an on-ice architect much like Kucherov. Pairing two premier skaters in Point and Hagel would potentially give the Lightning rare speed up the ice.
Still, it needed to be put into motion to see if it would actually work. And now the 24-year-old is flourishing in all aspects of his game.
After going goal-less in his first five games — missing on his first 12 shot attempts — Hagel had a goal in each of his past three games entering Saturday. Over that stretch, he arguably has been the team’s top all-around player, a difference-maker on the forecheck, power play and penalty kill.
“(Hagel) has done an exceptional job for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before the team headed out on their three-game, five-day West Coast road trip. “It takes players a little bit of time to find their way with our team, but he has a definitive role. Now he’s stepped into a little bit more of an offensive role.”
Things started off slowly for Hagel when he first joined the Lightning in March. He had never been traded before, and the Lightning sent two first-round draft picks to Chicago as part of the package to acquire him.
“You’re new, you’re nervous, you’re not sure,” he said. “You’re reading different things, you’re in your head so much. You’re not living in your own home with your own furniture, your own bed. So those are things you kind of had to adapt to. But this year, I know the city, I have my own place, I have my own bed. I feel at home 24/7, and that’s a huge thing in hockey.”
Once Hagel arrived in Tampa, he only scored four goals in his 22 regular-season games with the Lightning (two in the postseason) — after 21 in 55 games in Chicago — but he established himself in other ways by playing well away from the puck.
Before scoring his first goal of this season in a 5-3 win over the Islanders, Hagel helped set up the first goal of the game. He dumped the puck in deep, charged down the right wing and swiped the puck from New York defenseman Scott Mayfield against the end boards. Hagel then fed Kucherov by the post, and Point scored on a loose puck in front.
Hagel’s first goal came on a fortunate bounce later that game. Point flung a wrister from the high slot that hit off the crossbar and directly down, then hopped to Hagel near the far post for an open net.
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When Hagel first started playing with Point and Kucherov, he said he was focusing on getting the puck to them and creating a net presence to help them score. But he has learned that the key is being patient and not rush a pass that could lead to a turnover.
“Playing on that top line, you want to be confident with the puck,” Hagel said. “I need to make little plays, I need to hold on to it instead of just throwing it away. Those are things that are going to help my game in the long run, just being more patient with the puck and just reading off those guys. You can learn a lot by just watching those types of players.”
In Tuesday’s loss in Los Angeles, Hagel was a force on the forecheck, creating three scoring chances for himself early, including two short-handed shot attempts seven seconds apart in the period.
“Those are the things that really jump out and you know when they’re showing replays and highlights to the team, they’re showing that,” Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom said. “It’s not just the goals. I’m pretty sure he’s been on more than a couple of those highlights that the coaches show.”
Hagel then scored by going to the front of the net on the rush. Kucherov found MIkhail Sergachev along the right side, and Sergachev placed the puck in front of the net, forcing Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick to reach out for a botched poke check that landed on Hagel’s stick and he was able to tuck it in past Quick with a backhand.
Hagel then provided the go-ahead goal in Wednesday’s 4-2 win in Anaheim, ripping a shot from above the left circle as part of the Lightning’s second-team power-play unit. It was his first power-play goal with the Lightning.
“It’s just the process,” Engblom said. “I think he started to put a lot of pressure on himself early and just nothing was dropping. But I still thought that he did a lot of good things. He’s still scoring pretty early and there’s a relaxation that happens. It looks like you’re working even harder because you’re relaxed, you’re in the right places, your timing’s better. All of those things are starting to fall into place.”
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