“Player development is rarely linear” is a thing that you hear said about young players in all kinds of sport. It’s a saying that is largely trotted out when a young player who at one point seemed to be on a clear path to long-term success hits a roadblock and has a stretch where something goes wrong, and it’s used in that context as a reminder that players sometimes take longer to reach certain points in their developments than they do with others. These things don’t tend to go in a straight line, and different players may handle the same situations in different ways.
Robert Hagg, the Flyers’ second-round pick in the 2013 draft, has had a developmental path that no one would realistically call linear. A fairly well-regarded draft prospect who performed well in Sweden’s highest league in his teens, Hagg came to North America late in his post-draft season, and after a pretty good 2014-15 with the Phantoms, he figured to be pretty close to the NHL. But the 2015-16 season saw a lot go wrong for the young Swede, and that snag in his development — coupled with the Flyers’ ever-crowded young defense corps — made it fair to question when (if?) he’d end up breaking through at the NHL level.
Hagg followed up that disappointing year with a bounce-back in 2016-17, and he figured to have a good shot at making the Flyers’ roster the following year. And not only did Hagg make the team, he quickly became one of Dave Hakstol’s most trusted players. But, as we know, player development is strange, and as the Flyers’ season went on, Hagg’s status appeared to have dropped a bit, and it’s fair to ask where he stands right now in the team’s short- and long-term plans.
No. 11: Robert Hagg
Age: 23 (2/8/1995)
Size: 6’2”, 204 (via)
Acquired Via: 2013 NHL Draft — Round 2, Pick 41
2017-18 League/Team/Statistics: Philadelphia (NHL) — 3 G, 6 A in 70 GP
Ranking in BSH Winter 2018 25 Under 25: 11
Of the three young defensemen who were vying for two roster spots at the close of training camp last year, there was no doubt which one the Flyers were most pleased with at the time. While Travis Sanheim and Samuel Morin were left in suspense until after the team set out for its season-opening road trip out west, Hagg’s spot on the roster was announced immediately after the final game of the preseason.
And early on in the season, Hagg clearly and quickly became a favorite of head coach Dave Hakstol. Thanks to a number of factors (solid defensive-zone play, some fortunate puck luck, and injuries and suspensions elsewhere on the blue line), Hagg was pretty well locked into a top-4 role for the Flyers for the first half of the season, taking on tough minutes and getting regular time on the penalty kill. The rookie seemed to show a lot of poise and calmness in his game, and wasn’t afraid to get involved physically on the ice (you may have heard about it on a broadcast, but for much of last season, Robert Hagg actually led the NHL in hits). Through half of the season, one had to think that Hagg was essentially hitting the best-case scenario that the Flyers had envisioned for him to start the year.
But as the season moved into 2018 and the race for a playoff spot hastened, Hagg’s responsibilities started to dwindle. In January, Radko Gudas started taking on a bit more ice time at Hagg’s expense; later on, after the All-Star break, Brandon Manning largely did the same. Then, an injury in early March that was claimed to be a “two-week injury” sidelined Hagg ... for just nine days, at which point he returned to the lineup (in Manning’s stead), played in two games, and then went back to the press box. This time, though, was different: Hagg was sent up this time around as an alleged healthy scratch, and he would remain out of the lineup until a month later, in Game 5 of the Flyers’ series against the Penguins, at which point he drew in for Sanheim and played in the final two games of the season.
(Assistance with the timeline above provided largely via HockeyViz.)
Hagg signed a two-year deal worth $1.15 million per season earlier this month, giving himself two more years to show what he can do and the Flyers two more years to figure out what exactly they have him him and what they think of him. That last part there is maybe the key here, because it’s not entirely clear what the Flyers think of Hagg at this point.
It’s possible that Hagg’s big swings in ice time and responsibility were largely products of whether or not the puck was going in behind him. Hagg’s underlying numbers were suspect for much of the year, but early on in the season, when he was paired mostly with Shayne Gostisbehere, he managed to avoid being on the ice for a ton of goals against, which probably kept him in the coaching staff’s good graces. But while Hagg appears to be a plus contributor in terms of off-puck defense and own-zone coverage, ending up on the ice for a deluge of shots against rarely goes well in the long-run, and surely enough, as the season went on, Hagg’s goal metrics inevitably sagged. His ice time would follow, culminating in his missing nearly a month of hockey in March and April as a (reported) healthy scratch.
One year into his pro career, Hagg’s current skill set, capabilities, and limitations are pretty easy to size up. As mentioned above, Hagg has shown to be fairly competent in his own end of the ice. His size and good skating help him get to where he needs to be, and he rarely loses his man in coverage. In that sense, he comes across as a fairly safe and responsible player, one who you can see how coaches would like. But defensive prowess is, of course, only half the battle, and Hagg’s ability to generate offense is fairly limited. He tallied just three goals and six assists in 70 games with the Flyers, and hasn’t really been a potent offensive weapon in any season since he made the jump to the SHL. And even beside his ability to put up points, Hagg’s ability to start the breakout and pass his way out of trouble is somewhat limited.
That last part may be the key to Hagg’s ability to become more than the third-pair talent he currently appears to be. Defensemen don’t have to post a ton of points to be contributors to their team’s offensive capabilities, but defensemen who can’t find their way out of their own zone are usually in tough to end up being net-positives when all is said and done. When he was under pressure last year, the most frequent move we’d see Hagg make would be a backhand off the right-side boards and past the blue line — typically good enough to get his team a clear, a breather, and possibly a change, but rarely enough to get your own team the puck where they can do something with it of their own.
Hagg’s ability to make the right pass out of his own end was something that plagued him during that rough 2015-16 season with the Phantoms, as head coach Scott Gordon spoke about Hagg’s insistence on trying to make the home-run play and needing to instead simplify his game a bit. Hagg presumably took that to heart, and one season later, he found himself on the doorstep of the NHL. But now, finding the ability to make not just the simple play, but the best play, is the thing that’s most likely going to decide whether Hagg remains a third-pair player or whether he can become a second-pair (or better) guy.
There’s still plenty of time for Hagg to become more than he is now, and his second NHL season will be a good test for him on that front. And even if he doesn’t improve much, there are worse guys to have around than third-pair defensemen who can be shutdown guys and play on your penalty kill. But given the glut of talented young defensemen that the Flyers have at their disposal, Hagg’s going to need to continue to grow if he wants to stay in the coaching staff’s good graces.
How We Voted For Robert Hagg
How We Voted At No. 11
|Joel Farabee||Jay O'Brien||Mikhail Vorobyev||Wade Allison||Wade Allison||Robert Hagg||Isaac Ratcliffe||Samuel Morin||Wade Allison||Wade Allison||Joel Farabee||Robert Hagg||Robert Hagg||Robert Hagg||Joel Farabee|
How The Community Voted For Robert Hagg
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Previously in Philadelphia Flyers Summer 2018 Top 25 Under 25:
- Intro & Honorable Mentions
- No. 25: Noah Cates
- No. 24: Mark Friedman
- No. 23: Danick Martel
- No. 22: Matthew Strome
- No. 21: Taylor Leier
- No. 20: Nicolas Aube-Kubel
- No. 19: Felix Sandstrom
- No. 18: Tanner Laczynski
- No. 17: Jay O’Brien
- No. 16: Samuel Morin
- No. 15: Isaac Ratcliffe
- No. 14: German Rubtsov
- No. 13: Mikhail Vorobyev
- No. 12: Wade Allison