Robert Hagg

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.”

Flyers Weekly Observations: Lumps, bruises aplenty for rookie D-men

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Flyers Weekly Observations: Lumps, bruises aplenty for rookie D-men

Well, that was a busy week for the Flyers, now wasn’t it?

Seven days filled to the brim with four games, each with unique elements that turned into a 1-1-2 week with four points. The Flyers could have ended the week with more than four points. But they also had every reason to finish the week with less than four points.

It started with a mostly ugly 4-3 loss to the visiting Arizona Coyotes on Monday, continued with a 3-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Wednesday and a scrappy 2-0 win over the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center on Thursday, and it ended back home with a 5-4 shootout loss to Colorado Avalanche on Saturday evening.

Four games left us with plenty to get down to, so let’s hop right into this week’s Flyers observations.

And let’s begin on the blue line with the young defensemen.

• It was a week of bumps and bruises, both figuratively and literally for the Flyers’ defensemen. Much of the week was played without the injured Shayne Gostisbehere and Radko Gudas, the latter of whom left the game in Chicago early and hasn’t seen the ice since. But for the younger D-men, there were booby traps all over the learning curve this week.

Let’s start with Travis Sanheim, who made a costly mistake Monday against Arizona. And by costly I mean lethal, as it led to the goal that lost the game for the Flyers. During a rush late on the 3-on-3 OT, Sanheim turned his back to the Coyotes' net instead of getting the puck toward the net. His pocket was easily picked and the Coyotes converted on the ensuing 3-on-1 rush. Game. Set. Match. It was an odd decision for a smooth, offensively gifted defenseman, especially at that stage of OT. But you get the sense it was an example of a rookie just a month or so into his career trying to do too much. Those bumps are anticipated, but, man, that was just the wrong time for that move.

Robert Hagg had two similar experiences this week that left a pit in his stomach. First in Chicago on Wednesday, a puck bounced right over his stick after a faceoff win and Jonathan Toews was off to leave Brian Elliott out to dry on a Windy City clothesline. Then Saturday night while on the PK, a Mikko Rantanen pass attempt went right off Hagg’s stick, which was in good position on the ice, and into the net for an Avalanche goal. And to boot, he took a slapper to the kidney area later in the game. Ouch.

Again, these are all lumps that come with being a rookie in the NHL, especially in a high-pressure position such as defenseman. Remember that awful game Ivan Provorov endured early last year in Chicago? Yes, he’s a special talent, but he bounced back almost immediately. The key is not letting one or a couple plays stick in your mind and change the way you play. One good play, no matter how big or small, reinforces all the confidence in the world.

• Speaking of Provorov, that guy is just a machine. Let’s take a look at his ice time this week: 28:07 vs. Arizona, 29:51 vs. Chicago, 27:08 vs. St. Louis, 28:00 vs. Colorado. That’s an average of 28:17 over the last week. What more can he do? A lot. He added three assists vs. the Coyotes and then 10 blocked shots against the Blues. He was a monster in that game in St. Louis, helping keep Russian countryman and sniper Vladamir Tarasenko at bay. It’s hard to remember sometimes that Provorov is just the ripe, old age of 20. At 20, he’s the unquestioned leader of the Flyers’ defense, and rightfully so.  

• The first 50 minutes of the loss to the previously winless Coyotes on Monday was some of the ugliest hockey we’ve seen the Flyers play in a long, long time. No one on the same page. Absolutely nothing in sync. Passes all over the place. Breakdowns aplenty. The list could go on and on and on. To say the effort was lifeless would be quite the understatement. Of course, it’s harder to get up and get motivated for a winless, less-than-sexy team like Arizona. But still, that was inexcusable.

• We all watched Brayden Schenn play for five seasons here in Philadelphia. We know he’s not a dirty player. A physical player always looking to drop a hit whenever he can? Absolutely. But not dirty. But that hit in St. Louis on Sean Couturier was unacceptable.

Fortunately, Couturier only had the wind knocked out of him and came back later in the game, but that hit was late, high and incredibly dangerous. Schenn was given a two-minute minor for interference on the play, which speaks to a more general issue around the league.

That’s exactly the type of hit the NHL wants to eradicate from the game, yet only a two-minute penalty is given? What message does that send? You can knock another player out, but it’s OK, you didn’t do that much wrong? Stiffer penalties, both during and following games, are steps to getting rid of those hits.

• Captain Claude Giroux said it best following the shootout loss the Avs (see video) — The Flyers could really use the upcoming four days off after playing a stretch of seven games in 11 days that included a visit to Canada and a journey to Chicago and St. Louis on back-to-back nights. The stretch of four games in six days this past week was especially grueling. And to top it all off, it seemed like a Flyer was getting nicked up at every turn Saturday night against the Avs. These four days off will be refreshing for a team that’s already been ravaged by injuries at different points this season. We may not like having four days without Flyers hockey to watch, but the Flyers will certainly take it.

Coming up this week: Thursday vs. Chicago (7 p.m. on NBCSP), Saturday vs. Minnesota (7 p.m. on NBCSP+)

Flyers Film Study: Robert Hagg makes little things huge

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Flyers Film Study: Robert Hagg makes little things huge

Despite Tuesday night's 6-2 loss to the Ducks, the Flyers have enjoyed a solid start with five wins and 10 points in their first nine games. Nothing to write home about but many positives.

We're still in October, but the early signs are that the youth infusion has no doubt had a significant impact in the early going.

We’ve seen a tenacious fourth line, thanks to Taylor Leier’s chemistry with Scott Laughton, Nolan Patrick, while not making a huge impact yet, has allowed for more forward depth, and the two rookie defensemen have helped reshape a much-improved unit.

Robert Hagg is the subject of our second Flyers Rookie Report. Hagg has quietly become a rock on the blue line and has enabled Shayne Gostisbehere to be himself.

Because of an injury to Andrew MacDonald, Hagg has found himself promoted to the top pair, with 20-year-old Ivan Provorov, but we’re going to look Hagg’s previous work.

Enabling 'Ghost'
For the first eight games, Hagg had been partnered with Gostisbehere, playing on the right side. Hagg’s versatility to play either the left or right side is an added weapon.

What we've seen from Gostisbehere is a different player from last season. He's healthy, which is a factor. His struggles last season were overblown, but it wasn't a flawless sophomore campaign. We have to respect advanced stats because it has a place in the game, but the eye test didn’t do him any favors. This season has been different.

Gostisbehere is tied for second on the Flyers with 11 points, leads the NHL with seven power-play assists and looks like the player we saw in his rookie season. He’s even looked stronger defensively, too. Hagg deserves a lot of credit for Gostisbehere’s early-season success.

We’ll look at two plays from the Oct. 17 Panthers game and the Oct. 19 Predators game. Hagg picked up his first career point against Florida and mastered a 2-on-1 against Nashville. Let’s go to the film.

Hagg has three options here with the puck. One is Jordan Weal near the Panthers' bench. The second is Gostisbehere. The third is Valtteri Filppula at the bottom of the screen.

With one Panther around the blue line, Filppula was too risky of an option, so it was either Weal or Gostisbehere. Hagg quickly surveyed the ice before sending it to "Ghost," who then weighed his options before racing toward the red line with wide-open space.

It's worth noting Hagg's positioning as Gostisbehere began skating up ice. Hagg patiently stayed behind, allowing Gostisbehere to go.

Hagg's positioning allowed Gostisbehere to make a quick pass to Wayne Simmonds, who was stationed at the Florida blue line, and then continue to activate before scoring a goal.

A small but smart play by Hagg netted him his first career NHL point. It's not the most memorable one, but it also showed why the pair worked so well.

The second play is an example of having a sound two-way defenseman with Gostisbehere, who turned the puck over off an offensive-zone draw that led to a 2-on-1 Nashville rush.

Hagg aggressively attacks Predators defenseman Mattias Ekholm and showcases incredible stick work, forcing Ekholm to attempt an unsuccessful saucer pass. Hagg breaks up the pass and stays with the play, drops to a knee and takes away the danger.

Coming out party
Hagg's most effective game of his young career came Saturday in the Flyers' 2-1 win over the Oilers. He blocked two shots, had five hits and started the game-winning goal.

He was physical and showed great stick work. We'll look at those, but his most impressive play came with 10 seconds left, the Flyers up 2-1 and Edmonton with an extra attacker.

With the puck in the corner, Hagg challenged Connor McDavid, Ryan Strome and Patrick Maroon to a battle and effectively killed about six seconds, essentially ending the game.

That was a 22-year-old defenseman in his eighth career game challenging McDavid, the best player in the world, Strome, the 2011 fifth overall pick, and Maroon to take the puck from him. They couldn't for six seconds.

Below is a great example of Hagg's stick work. We saw a little bit of it above on the 2-on-1. On this play, Hagg used his stick to eliminate Mark Letestu's options before stripping it from Letestu. 

Hagg didn't get an assist on Simmonds' game-winning goal Saturday, but he threaded a pass to Jori Lehtera that started the play.

Analysis
A lot of what Hagg does will not show up in the box score, but the highlighted plays above are samples of how he’s earned the trust of the coaching staff.

He’s an incredibly sound player with a high hockey IQ. Through the eight games, he seemed like a perfect match for Gostisbehere, a blueliner most effective in the offensive zone.

Tuesday was not a positive night for anyone. With MacDonald out, the Flyers’ pairs were new and there was a feeling out period. By the time that happened, the game was out of reach. The Hagg-Provorov pair has potential, but I would put Hagg back with Gostisbehere.

The two clicked and read off each other. Hagg allowed Gostisbehere to do what he does best without having to worry about his partner, and that gave the Flyers a dangerous pair.

If they’re not back together Thursday, I suspect we’ll see them together again once MacDonald comes back from his lower-body injury.

Hagg might not collect a ton of points, but as a buddy of mine said the other day, "he reminds me of a late-career Kimmo Timonen." Which, I'm sure, Flyers fans will take.