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Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25: Robert Hagg looks to bounce back from tough second year with Phantoms

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The highly-regarded Swedish defenseman struggled through most of his second season in Lehigh Valley. What was the cause of that, and what do we need to see from him this year?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Of the Flyers' group of top defensive prospects -- the "Big Four"-turned-"Big Five" featuring a number of talented defensemen taken between the 2012 and 2015 drafts -- Robert Hagg was the first of the group to get significant experience in a pro league. He spent about half of his draft season and his entire first post-draft season playing in the SHL, before jumping to the AHL not long after he turned 19. As he made that jump, it was fair to wonder if Hagg, a player who was seen as a fringe-first round prospect that the Flyers were able to get in the middle of the second round in the 2013 draft, would have a leg up in the AHL thanks to that experience.

It's been two years since then, and though Hagg is certainly still a quality defensive prospect, it's fair to say the first two years of Hagg's career in North America have been up and down.

Of that aforementioned "Big Five" (consisting of Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere, Samuel Morin, Travis Sanheim, and Ivan Provorov), Hagg is the first one to show up on our countdown. And while this was also the case last year after a pretty solid first season with the Phantoms, it was an easier call to make this time around, following a second season in Lehigh Valley that didn't go quite as well for the young Swede.

No. 11: Robert Hagg

Position: D
Age: 21 (2/8/1995)
2015-16 League/Team/Statistics: Lehigh Valley (AHL) - 5 G, 6 A in 65 GP
Nationality: Swedish (Uppsala)
Acquired Via: 2013 NHL Draft -- Round 2, Pick 41

So what exactly happened to Hagg this year? He spent the 2014-15 season, by most accounts, holding his own at the AHL level, despite being one of the youngest players in the entire league, so to see his year-over-year point totals almost cut in half and to see him getting healthy scratched multiple times during the 2015-16 season has to be seen as a disappointment.

And it is one, to be sure. Still, it seems as though this year was a bit learning experience for Hagg, and one he and his coaches will hopefully be able to work off of this coming year.

Not long after the Phantoms' season ended, Phantoms reporter and friend of the blog Tony Androckitis pulled together about 3,000 words of analysis of and quotes about Hagg and his season and Phantoms career to date, talking a bit about his struggles in the middle part of the season and how things took a turn for the better towards the end of the year.

There's a lot of good stuff in there, from Tony as well as from Hagg and his coaches, and I'd encourage you to read through it when you have the chance. But for the sake of getting to the point, here's the money quote from Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon on Hagg's struggles:

Basically for four or five months, his idea of transition was getting the puck and going for the home run play at the far blue line, waiting for options to materialize that never materialized. The pressure was coming to him and he was retreating back into the zone and my conversation with him throughout the year - this isn't Europe. When you play in a bigger rink you have the opportunity if you don't like it, to take it back. Because the rink is bigger, the forwards have more room to move around. The seams are bigger, the spacing is different and there's more things you can make happen not just from a possession standpoint but how the pressure comes from the opposition. European hockey is a lot more patience on the fore-check. So what I said to him is that you're playing like you are over in Europe that you have all that time and space. Then what's happening when you don't get your option you have cornered yourself so you can't make a play. And then you're making a last ditch effort, icing the puck and then you're stuck in your zone which in turn means you can't play in the offensive zone. You're playing tired because you needed a change.

The whole thing snowballed from what he was doing with the puck. Combine that with shots getting blocked and coming right back at him. He's now playing more in the offensive zone because of his decisions with the puck to make the easier 10-foot pass than to try to go for the 120-foot pass. As a result, there is less turnovers and he's getting up into the play. You pass from the goal line to the far blue line you can't be a part of the attack. Put that all together and that's where he is today.

You always hear about how The Bigger Ice Surface In Europe affects prospects coming over from there to North America, but it's interesting to hear actual, concrete ways in which it affected a key Flyers prospect. And there are positive and negative ways to view what Gordon had to say here about Hagg's struggles for the year.

On the one hand, indecisiveness with the puck isn't a great skill to see at 20 years old, even if you do want to attribute some or all of it to an adjustment to the new ice surface, and the fact that it seemed to have gotten worse in Hagg's second year in North America isn't a good sign. This could suggest that Hagg may have his limitations as a puck-mover at the game's highest levels, and would be best-served with someone who can handle the puck well. (Androckitis notes that Hagg played well alongside Travis Sanheim at the end of the season, and that the team could roll out that pairing again this year.)

But on the other hand, the fact that Hagg seems to have picked up on his own mistakes and bad tendencies during the year (with some help from the coaching staff) is a good sign, and the uptick in his play over the last month or so of the season is something you can point to if you're still optimistic about him being a top-4 NHL defenseman. Knowing your strengths and limitations and playing to them will get you a long way as a developing player, and if Hagg is able to work with and build on that, then 2016-17 should be his best season yet.

Hagg has sadly become a reminder of how quickly prospects can fall out of favor if fans have been able to see a lot of them and if they haven't performed the way said fans have hoped they would. And Hagg's second year in the AHL being a step back is almost the perfect storm on that front, and it's put him in a position where this upcoming season is a crucial one. If his same struggles with the puck continue and he's getting himself healthy-scratched (a possibility given how stacked the Lehigh Valley blue line figures to be this year), he's going to start to fall off the radar. But if he's learned from his mistakes and plays the way that the team knows he can, he should find himself trending upwards again by the time next year is complete.

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How we voted for Robert Hagg :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
11 11 15 11 14 9 13 19 9 15

How we voted at No. 11 :

Kelly Travis Charlie Allison Kurt Brent Collin Kevin Al Community
Robert Hagg Robert Hagg Oskar Lindblom Robert Hagg Nicolas Aube-Kubel Anthony Stolarz Nicolas Aube-Kubel Felix Sandstrom Mark Friedman Nicolas Aube-Kubel

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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Top 25 Under 25, Summer 2016: