Poll 100 Flyers fans and ask them which out of the team's "big five" of defensive prospects -- Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg, Travis Sanheim, and Ivan Provorov -- that they're most excited about, and I'd guess that four out of those five names would largely dominate the conversation. And, on the surface, it's not too hard to see why.
Gostisbehere's blazing speed has wowed fans for years now, while Morin's tantalizing combination of size and skating has people dreaming of just how good he can be if his offense ever comes around. Sanheim's vision and offensive ability have helped his stock skyrocket in the past year, and Provorov was hailed as one of the smartest, well-rounded defensive prospects to come out in years before the Flyers took him last June. (It's not a coincidence that each of those four players are still yet to come on this countdown.)
There was, of course, one name that was conspicuously absent from that last paragraph -- and it belongs to the only member of that group of five with significant experience playing against professional hockey players: Robert Hagg, who dropped two spots on this year's countdown from last year's despite a fairly successful 2014-15 campaign.
Hagg spent a year and a half at Sweden's top level, and while his ice time was typically limited on a crowded MODO blueline, he still tallied 77 games at the SHL level between 2012 and 2014 before signing an entry-level deal with the Phantoms in March 2014 and playing out all of this past season in Lehigh Valley. 19-year olds don't typically get significant time at the AHL (largely due to the NHL's rules which prevent CHLers from playing there until they turn 20), but it seems as though Hagg handled himself fairly well in his first full season on this side of the ocean.
Since he joined the Flyers' ranks two summers ago, the biggest knock on Hagg has always been that his consistency wavers a bit too much on a game-by-game basis. Since he's not someone who has that one high-end, standout skill that really allows him to take over a moment or a game -- especially, as mentioned above, when compared to his fellow defensive prospects in this pipeline -- it's imperative that he makes the most of his well-rounded skill set on a night-in, night-out basis.
While there's work to be done there, it does seem Hagg's made progress in that regard. Likely, that's been helped by getting consistent minutes in North America -- Hagg was rarely breaking double-digits in minutes played during his SHL games, while it sounds like he was given a fairly significant role with Lehigh Valley from the outset (a role that increased following the unfortunate injury that took Gostisbehere out for the season).
He got minutes on both special teams units, and at times during the year he was taking minutes against the other team's best players -- again, not something to take for granted for a 19/20-year old in this league. That he managed to acclimate himself to the North American game fairly well despite the pairings in Lehigh Valley changing pretty constantly -- and despite missing time mid-year to compete in World Juniors yet again, taking on a significant role on Team Sweden's top pair -- is an encouraging sign.
With that said, there are obviously still steps to be taken by Hagg. In a piece after the end of last season, the Inquirer's Sam Carchidi wrote that former Phantoms head coach Terry Murray mentioned that Hagg "needs more seasoning in the AHL", with little other insight provided. That's not at all surprising -- not even the most optimistic of people were expecting Hagg to be an NHLer after just a year of hockey in North America -- but it does go to show that Hagg is going to need to show even more skill and consistency at the AHL level this year to stay on the track the Flyers have him on.
In particular, the big thing we'll be looking for from Hagg this year is how much his offense comes around this year. Hagg had excellent scoring numbers in Sweden's under-20 levels, and after those two seasons of limited time in the SHL, he's put up four goals and 20 assists in 79 games in Adirondack and Lehigh Valley. While that's not bad for someone his age in this setting, we're certainly hoping to see his offensive game open up a bit more this year -- and with what should be a stronger Lehigh Valley roster around him from top to bottom, he may have the opportunity to do just that.
And if that happens, and if the consistency continues to develop and be more evident in Hagg's game, then how much longer will he be the guy in the big five who gets overlooked?
In a piece that was published last week, Ron Hextall mentioned that the team's top young defensive prospects will "start filtering in at some point this year". Among the team's three top AHL-bound d-men (Sanheim and Provorov are not AHL-eligible and will either be in Philadelphia or juniors for the entire year), it's not hard to envision a scenario in which Hagg is the guy who gets the first crack at an NHL spot. Gostisbehere is essentially re-starting his first full pro season following last year's injury, and Morin is actually starting his first pro season this fall. Hagg essentially has a leg up on both of them in terms of experience, so it's very possible that he ends up being "NHL-ready" first of the three -- and if Hextall believes that he's ready and can help the NHL roster, he'll be in Philadelphia before we know it.
To be clear, though: a lot would need to go right for Hagg to be an NHLer this year. The offense and concentration need to take a step forward. The proficiency and consistency in all three zones needs to be there. Shifts and nights off need to be few and far between. But with what he's already seen and gone through, and with the skill he has, there's a good chance he comes out and is one of the Phantoms' best defensemen this year right away.
So even if Hagg may be the lowest-profile player of the team's "big five", he's already shown he can hold his own against the pros. Even if he doesn't have blazing speed or hulking size and strength or elite offensive instincts or completely sound fundamentals, he's above-average in most if not all of those areas, and his combination of skills should continue to serve him well. If he's able to bring most of them on a night-in, night-out basis, it's hard to imagine him not being pretty successful.
How we voted for Robert Hagg:
Who we voted for at No. 9:
|Anthony Stolarz||Taylor Leier||Nicolas Aube-Kubel||Robert Hagg||Robert Hagg||Nicolas Aube-Kubel||Robert Hagg||Scott Laughton||Robert Hagg||Scott Laughton||Nicolas Aube-Kubel||Travis Konecny|