Flyers' Robert Hagg proving polished beyond his years

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Flyers' Robert Hagg proving polished beyond his years

VOORHEES, N.J. — Robert Hagg needed just one game. One game to prove the NHL wasn’t completely out of his league.

“I was like, 'Give me one chance so I can feel how it is, how big of a difference everything is.' That’s the mindset I had, just give me one game,” Hagg said.

Last April 9, in the season finale against the Carolina Hurricanes, Hagg was provided the opportunity. In a meaningless game in the standings, it meant everything to the rookie defenseman. He finally had the chance to validate that his game was indeed good enough.  

“I got that one game, and after that, I just wanted to play and to prove to myself and prove to everyone else I could play at this level,” Hagg said Monday. “That’s the mindset I’m still having right now is to prove to everybody else that I can still play at this level. I want to stay up here and build a career here.”

If Shayne Gostisbehere’s ascension to the National Hockey League was more of preparation through a microwave, then Hagg is the result of having a player slowly braised in a pressure cooker. GM Ron Hextall took his time with the 22-year-old defenseman, ensuring Hagg was completely well-done at the AHL level before bringing him to Philadelphia to stay. Hagg logged over 200 games with the Phantoms, and arguably, he probably needed every one of them.

“I couldn’t see it back then, but I can probably see it better now when I’m up here,” Hagg said. “Especially in the past year, I felt I was playing more on a consistent basis. So I felt like I was a step closer. I probably didn’t want to see it my first or second year, but you can see it from a bigger point right now. What [Hextall’s] vision is. I think it’s a good system here.”

Now there’s apparently no task too tough for this Flyers rookie defenseman. From skating with Gostisbehere to begin the season, Hagg has now partnered with second-year player Ivan Provorov on the Flyers' shutdown pair.

“I think he’s a really good player, he competes hard. He keeps it nice and simple. He gets it out of the zone quick, limits the turnovers. I think he’s done a great job,” Provorov said. “Calm and consistent — definitely, those are the two words that describe him best. I think he’s very calm on the ice and very consistent.”

After exceeding the 20-minute mark once in his first 10 games this season, Hagg has been counted on to fill some of the heavy minutes that were reserved for Andrew MacDonald before the veteran's lower-body injury. Hagg has logged 21 minutes or more in four of the last five games. Part of that has been the loss of key personnel throughout the course of a game, which has forced the Flyers to play with five defensemen.

But still, it's a great responsibility the rookie is taking in stride.

“Hagger has shown a real good presence, and maybe I overuse that word, but for a younger player, that’s a big deal,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “He’s had his bumps in the road through the early parts of this year, but what tells you that he’s very much ready to be a very good player at this level is that he’s able to rebound from those pretty quickly and not have them affect his next shift or his next game.

“That’s not an easy thing for a young defenseman, especially for some of the roles that we’ve asked him to step into especially with the absence of [MacDonald] the last couple of weeks.”

“It’s all a big challenge for me. Those type of minutes against top players,” Hagg said. “The only thing I’m doing is trying to make my teammates better. If I’m playing with Ghost, I’m trying to make him better. If I’m playing with Ivan, I’m trying to make him better.”

Remarkably, Hagg has played 257:55 at even strength (second on the club to Provorov) in which he’s been on the ice for just four goals against, or one even-strength goal for every 64 minutes he’s on the ice. By far, the best on the Flyers and an astounding number when you consider the top defensemen in the league are in the 25-35 range.

If there’s a blueprint for success on the blue line, then Hagg thinks you’ll find it down in Tampa where the Lightning’s top duo consists of a pair of Swedes.

“You see guys, like the way Victor Hedman is playing, big strong man, they’re superstars in this league," Hagg said. "He’s playing with [Anton] Stralman, and he’s helping him to be better as well. Last few years, I’ve been watching Stralman and he’s been playing a hard and simple game — get the puck up to the forwards.”

Trying to make his teammates better and his opponents a little sorer, Hagg has brought an element of physicality that’s been missing from the Flyers' defense in recent years with some bone-jarring hits against the Ducks and most recently the Avalanche.

“You can’t be chasing around for the big hit. Sure, these last couple of games I’ve had a couple big hits, but it’s not something I’m looking to get every single game," Hagg said. "If it happens, it happens. I just want to be on the right side and check people and knock people off the puck. That’s the purpose of it. It’s not about throwing big-body checks where the whole crowd goes nuts.

“Of course, that’s awesome sometimes.”

Injury updates
Add Michal Neuvirth’s name to those who did not practice with the team on Monday. The Flyers said Neuvirth was given a maintenance day. Nolan Patrick and Radko Gudas were also held out of practice once again. Patrick has missed the past six games with an upper-body injury as he appears to be working through the team’s concussion protocol.

Gudas indicated that he was feeling better following Saturday’s game against the Avalanche, but he remains sidelined, as well. Gudas has missed the past two games after leaving last Wednesday’s game in Chicago early with an upper-body injury.

Special visitors
Following Monday's practice, Wayne Simmonds and Brian Elliott hosted 12 members from the United States Air Force for an on-ice hockey clinic. Based out of McGuire/Fort Dix in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the servicemen and women will also be attending Saturday’s Flyers game against the Minnesota Wild as part of the “Wayne’s Warriors” initiative.

“I mentioned it and everybody just kind of looked at me," Simmonds said. "It’s always cool to meet those guys and talk to them, just pick their minds and stuff like that. I think some of those guys are going off and start training soon. I think it’s nice to get them out to a game."

Elliott knows firsthand of the demands required in the military. His wife, Amanda, served as an intelligence officer in the Air Force before finishing up her commitment in 2011.

“It’s cool that they have a team out here. You don’t see that too often,” Elliott said. “Some of those guys just got off the plane from being overseas for six months. They’re out here excited to be out here. How can you not be happy to go out there and shoot the breeze with them. The goaltender just got back and said he had brand-new gear on. He was a target out there so he was pretty tired.”

Danick Martel's debut highlights Travis Konecny's regression

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Danick Martel's debut highlights Travis Konecny's regression

Danick Martel made his Flyers debut Wednesday night at left wing on the second line … without one NHL game to his credit or even a single practice with his linemates.

Perhaps it can all be viewed as a refreshing change for a team that needed a shock to the system, and certainly a different look for an offense that has routinely struggled to score goals.

But more than anything, it revealed a much more glaring problem for the Flyers: Has Travis Konecny regressed to the point that general manager Ron Hextall needs to consider other options?

Martel has now slipped into the role once occupied by Konecny, whose performance so far this season has been nothing short of sporadic.

The second-year winger had a string of games playing on the left side of Valtteri Filppula and Wayne Simmonds, but the line never really generated any sustained success, and head coach Dave Hakstol doesn’t seem to know what to do with Konecny at this stage of his career. 

Left wing, right wing, second line, third line. One quarter into this season and already Konecny has been a linemate with eight different teammates, and his ice time has fluctuated anywhere between nine and 18 minutes per game.

This can’t be what the front office envisioned for Konecny when he made the Flyers' roster straight out of training camp in 2016. He may have played like an All-Star during the preseason, but exhibition hockey games typically lack a full complement of NHL players, many of which take the necessary measures to ensure they don’t overextend themselves and suffer an injury before the regular season begins. 

At this stage of their careers, the 22-year-old Martel and the 20-year-old Konecny appear to be almost side by side in their development. As Martel has exploded in his third season with the Phantoms, Konecny has struggled in Year 2 with the Flyers, and a lack of confidence has seemingly followed.   

He has just two goals on 84 attempted shots, many of which have left a black smudge on the glass behind the net, and he’s one of the few Flyers forwards with less than 50 percent of his shots on goal. Konecny, more than anything, needs to experience success along with a committed focus on his defensive responsibilities.

One Western Conference scout who attended Tuesday’s Flyers game against the Canucks believes Konecny could benefit greatly given time with the Phantoms. 

“He went straight from juniors to the NHL,” the scout, who chose to remain anonymous, said. “He hasn’t really learned to play a responsible two-way game at the pro level. I don’t think it would hurt him to refine his game and gain some confidence in the American League.”

Martel had no choice. He went undrafted after three seasons in the QMJHL. Nothing has been given and everything has been earned. Martel told Joe Santoliquito of the Philly Voice last week there’s a certain dose of determination that comes with being 5-foot-9, 162 pounds. 

"I love proving people wrong. It’s why I went undrafted,” Martel said. “It’s why I have a f--- you attitude! That started when I was younger. Not a lot of people trusted in the way I play and my size. I’m going to score anyway. That’s the way I think. It’s the way I play. I’m not small. I play big. You want to make a mistake. Judge me by my size.

“I love pissing off the bigger players because they automatically assume that they’re better than me. It’s why I will never stop working. I need to work on the defensive zone if I’m going to play in the NHL.”

Martel has a hunger and determination that Konecny needs to rediscover. There’s no reason he should have minor-league immunity. Scott Laughton needed a full year with the Phantoms to become the player the organization envisioned, and it appears to have paid off. 

As Hextall stated when he sent highly-touted Oskar Lindblom to Lehigh Valley prior to the season opener in San Jose, “American League time hasn’t hurt one player in the history of professional hockey. It’s not a death sentence.” 

Let’s remind ourselves that even Claude Giroux had a 38-game stint with the Phantoms. 

Right now, it can only help the career of Konecny in the same way it has worked out for Martel.

Flyers prospect Mike Vecchione gives thanks with Union hockey

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Flyers prospect Mike Vecchione gives thanks with Union hockey

As much as the stories pierced his heart, Mike Vecchione wanted to listen.

There he sat in the Schenectady YMCA, next to a war veteran a few days before Thanksgiving. After tours in Iraq, the gentleman had lost so much. His home gone due to foreclosure, his livelihood ripped out from underneath him, with the terror of war still fresh.

There wasn't much to be thankful for, but he had someone in Vecchione that night.

Not an NHL prospect or an NCAA national champion.

But just someone who cared.

"He went over there, back and forth, and next thing you know, he's out of his home and can't afford to pay for the necessities — and it's really sad," Vecchione said. "I feel like I've heard a couple of those stories where guys go over there and come back and kind of lost a lot of their lives. It's difficult to listen to and you can see he was kind of shaken up about the whole thing. He was talking about when he was over there, what he saw and it still kind of haunts him at night.

"I thought that was one of the tougher stories. He was only like in his mid-40s and seemed to be doing really well, and now he's just living day to day, trying to figure out a way to make a living. That was one story that stuck with me and I definitely hope he's doing OK."

This was one of four years, from 2013-17, in which Vecchione helped continue a growing tradition of the men's hockey program at Union College, a private liberal arts school in Schenectady, New York, located in the state's Capital District.

"It's one of the highlights of the year," Union head coach Rick Bennett said. "And you say that, you think highlights of the year, it revolves around hockey, but it's just the opposite."

This Tuesday marked the 13th consecutive year Union hockey has helped serve Thanksgiving meals to the less fortunate at the Schenectady branch of the Capital District YMCA, which houses war veterans, men with disabilities, mental illness and chemical addiction.

Vecchione, 24, now a Flyers prospect in his first season with the Phantoms after signing as a college free agent at the end of March, will always remember the people he met.

"Some guys can't handle those stories, other guys can, and I was one of the guys who were listening to them, talking to them," Vecchione said earlier this month in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "Afterward, they just kind of say, 'We're very thankful for what you guys do here, to come here and talk to us, serve us and listen to us.' All the little things you don't really think about are biggest things for them, that they're most appreciated."

Rick Bennett and Mike Vecchione (Union College)

What has become a staple of the Union hockey season started before Vecchione's time and prior to Bennett becoming head coach.

It began with the teams of Nate Leaman, who is now in his seventh season at Providence. Bennett, who was an assistant under Leaman and has been Union's head man ever since his predecessor's departure, has pushed the annual event forward.

"First and foremost, we're just trying to help others. We're trying to help our community, and the lessons that we all learn — not just the players, our staff learns from it every time that we do it every year — of how fortunate that we are and how we can help others," Bennett said. "When you do things in your community, to really help others, it's a good feeling. We're fortunate enough to be on the coaching staff here at Union College and our players are lucky to be student athletes at Union College. Some of these people that we're serving actually have come to our hockey games. They actually know some about the program, which is really impressive."

But, as Bennett and Vecchione will tell you, the credit goes to the Schenectady YMCA.

Union hockey is simply happy to lend a hand and add to the night.

"There's really not much that goes into it," Vecchione said. "The YMCA does a great job setting everything up with the food services and that sort of thing."

Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took part during his three years at Union (2011-14) and is proud of what the community outreach has become.

"It's Schenectady, it's not the biggest place, so it's definitely cool," he said. "A lot of people, even though they don't have the best in the world, they find a way to put a smile on every day.

"It's the holiday season, some people aren't fortunate enough to be with their friends and family and whatnot. For us to be together, spend it with some people that are less fortunate, I think it's awesome. Puts everything in perspective for your life, to realize how lucky you are."

Over time, Union and the Schenectady YMCA formed a special bond with one common goal around Thanksgiving. Lou Magliocca, the executive director of housing for the Capital District YMCA, is a leader in coordinating the event and deeply appreciates the realness of Union hockey. The men's and women's programs are the school's only Division I sports, while the rest compete at the Division III level.

The institution of 2,200 undergraduate students hit the national map in 2014 — Vecchione's freshman year — when the men's hockey team captured its first-ever NCAA championship.

Magliocca, however, was blown away the following season.

"I thought it would be over with when they won the title, I thought I wouldn't see them again, you know? Now they're real big," he said. "Matter of fact, Coach called us and he said, 'Do you know the date of your Thanksgiving?'

"It's amazing. It's absolutely amazing."

Union hockey at Schenectady YMCA (Union Athletics)

To make each year possible, Magliocca said the YMCA receives donations from various businesses within the community to help provide the food.

The dinner is then prepared in the YMCA's kitchen and served from 4-7 p.m., typically on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Day. Magliocca has been with the YMCA for nearly 17 years and fondly looks back on how it started with Union.

"Their athletic programs do some great volunteer work in the community," he said. "They've made it a mainstay that they all give back to something in the community.

"So what the Union hockey team did, we started to put together a Thanksgiving dinner. And what we did during the Thanksgiving dinner is we gave thanks to the guys that live here, they can invite a family member over, they can invite a friend over, that type of thing.

"Of the 188 that live here, we usually serve around 220, 225. Some don't have families, some do."

Magliocca said Union hockey works all three hours in numerous roles. Some are stationed in the back preparing the plates and drinks, while others hustle out the food and provide the dinner conversation.

"All the guys, great attendance, all the guys come, they mingle with homeless veterans here in Schenectady County," Magliocca said. "It's turned out to be a great event, a great partnership between the YMCA and Union College, where it's kind of grown with steam every year.

"It's just been a really good relationship, real good time and a real purposeful event serving the individuals here at our program."

And a person like Vecchione brightened the days of those individuals.

"What Union hockey adds to it, it adds a smile to their face," Magliocca said. "The conversation that they don't normally have."

Union hockey this year at Schenectady YMCA (Ross LaDue, Union Athletics)

It's no surprise such an effort and setting is right up Vecchione's alley.

The Saugus, Massachusetts, native comes from a family of work ethic and respect, values that have shaped him on and off the ice. His father, Joe, is a correctional officer and his mother, Diane, works as a billing assistant for a fence company.

Growing up, Vecchione learned the importance of hard work — nothing being given to you.

During his college summers, instead of focusing only on hockey — a sport that has earned him all sorts of accolades and now a professional career — Vecchione worked manual-labor type of jobs, from construction to building fences, to landscaping and roofing.

His daily routine consisted of waking up at 7:30 a.m., working out for two hours, skating for another two, before heading off to the day's job from 2-6 p.m.

Then doing it all over again.

"I did all those blue-collar jobs while I was home for the summer," Vecchione said. "It was something that's been instilled in my family — you've got to work to make a living. So I had to find a way to make some money and have a job. It definitely taught me some good lessons."

The drive and grind turned the 5-foot-10 Vecchione into a four-year college standout at Union, where he put up a program record 176 points, won the national championship in 2014 and was named a 2017 Hobey Baker Award (top college player) finalist.

The accomplishments weren't a product of pure talent.

"Family sacrifices growing up are a huge part of it," Bennett said. "It always starts at home; as we say, it starts at the kitchen table.

"[His parents] did it the right way."

The right way is a major reason why Vecchione took Thanksgiving at the YMCA to heart.

"Talking to some of the people, and there were some of them that sounded like they didn't really celebrate Thanksgiving because they couldn't afford it or they were alone on Thanksgiving," Vecchione said. "It's kind of a time to be around friends and family, whoever, but in this case, we were their family. Stand and kneel with them, hanging out, having some laughs, telling stories.

"You wouldn't think they would care too much about those little things that we take for granted, but at the same time, it can be a lonely world, a tough world, and these people have to go through with it every day. And we don't even think about those things. For us just to be there, have fun, listen to them and just kind of share this holiday, it was something they really appreciated and we didn't even think it was a big deal. It was very rewarding and I definitely always love to do that for those people."

Mike Vecchione (Union Athletics)

It was more than about simply showing up.

As a team captain his junior and senior years, Vecchione, humble and unassuming, wanted things done right when representing Union at the YMCA.

Just like it was for the war veterans, this meant something to Vecchione.

"They absolutely love it," Vecchione said. "The people that we serve are very generous and just very thankful that we go out there and support them and help them."

Bennett knew his team was in good hands with Vecchione. In this instance, the coach was not there to bark orders. He was there to listen to his leader.

"He was a two-year captain here, so let's just say we never had an issue at the YMCA with our team when Mike was running the show," Bennett said. 

"I'm usually with our staff in the back with a couple players getting the plates ready. I think that's where Mike said that I belong, so I was just following his orders.

"He said, 'You know what Rick, you just get the back, keep it quiet and just make sure the food is out here so I can serve it.'"

Vecchione deflected the attention away from the importance of his role.

"My job really was to make sure everybody's there, dressed appropriately and we're on time. And just delegate jobs to guys, need people to refill the water and the juice, guys in the kitchen, putting things together, servers, that sort of thing. We have the easy part," Vecchione said. "For me, I just delegated jobs, figure out what guys like to do. Some guys are more comfortable in the kitchen, where other guys are more social and can listen to those stories. So you kind of get a feel for what guys are willing to do and give them the job that best suits them."

Vecchione knew he wanted to listen.

"Just give them an ear to lean on," he said. "I definitely don't forget about those people when Thanksgiving comes around."

They were thankful for Vecchione.

But a guy like him was thankful for the opportunity.