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.”
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.
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.”