For Oskar Lindblom, for Flyers, Robert Hagg is playing, performing and smiling

For Oskar Lindblom, for Flyers, Robert Hagg is playing, performing and smiling

Robert Hagg walked out one of the equipment rooms at Flyers Skate Zone, exchanged friendly greetings and smiled in his locker stall.

The 25-year-old defenseman is enjoying himself during a season in which enjoyment has met obstacles.

Hagg is amid a contract year and has dealt with healthy scratches in a competitive group of blueliners. Cracking the lineup was a task in itself. Staying in it has been another test.

But those pressures of the NHL paled in comparison to the news he received alongside his close friend and teammate Oskar Lindblom. In December, the 23-year-old Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones.

"He’s a mentally strong kid," Hagg said Tuesday. "It’s impressive."

So Hagg pushes forward. He's tough on the ice, but sports a big smile off of it — just like Lindblom. Hagg never needed another reason to work hard and have fun. After learning of Lindblom's cancer diagnosis, he had one.

You’re putting life in a different perspective," he said. "It was really tough when we found out and a couple of weeks after that. Ever since then, I felt like he wants us to keep playing, keep winning, that’s what he wants. That’s the only thing you can do for him, as well. Keep fighting with him, but he wants you to play and do well.

I think there’s an extra push for the whole team knowing that. It’s great when he’s coming down, you can tell everybody is happy. We had a chance to see him the other day, the whole team, you feel the vibe, there’s so much energy coming into the locker room and I think that helps. It’s going to help now and in the end, too, because we need all the energy we can get.

Through their Swedish connection, Hagg and Lindblom have grown close with the Flyers. They knew each other prior to joining the Flyers' organization, playing together in 2012-13 on Sweden's U-18 IIHF World Junior Championship team and U-18 international club. This season, through success and hardship, their bond has fortified.

"When he moved over here, we got closer because we saw each other every day basically," Hagg said. "But I felt like even going through this part, it’s bringing us closer as friends, too. You’re getting closer if you’re from the same country, speak the same language and you can help each other out in that way. I felt these years have brought us closer together and I think it’s bringing us even closer together right now.”

Hagg and Lindblom live nearby each other in downtown Philly on the waterfront.

"My girlfriend and his girlfriend are pretty tight," Hagg said. "I talk with him quite a lot."

As Lindblom has undergone his cancer treatment, Hagg has seen his friend's strength.

"He’s still like the same person, you can’t really tell what he’s going through," Hagg said. “He’s living the same way he did before. It’s good to see him. … Nothing bothers him."

(Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers)

With injuries to Shayne Gostisbehere (knee) and Justin Braun (groin), Hagg jumped on his chance to play. He has come out of the lineup only three times since Dec. 29, a stretch in which he has 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and a plus-16 rating over 26 games. In those 26 games, the Flyers have gone 19-5-2.

“He’s found a way to earn a spot in our group through an opportunity — Ghost got hurt, Haggs came in and has played real well, and at the same time, the team’s game has picked up," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday. "He’s playing within his limits — he’s high percentage, he’s physical when he needs to be and one of our best defensemen at blocking shots.

"I’ve liked what he has brought to our group, so hopefully he can continue to contribute the way he has been doing.”

As a third-pair defenseman, Hagg knows his game. And he has played it well. Not trying to do too much and doing the little things have kept him in the lineup.

Furthermore, his fearlessness in blocking shots (team-best 6.30 per 60) and standing up for others is not lost on his teammates.

“He brings a lot to this team, plays the right way defensively and he’s there to block every shot he can," Kevin Hayes said Tuesday. "We have a couple guys like that on our back end. It’s a stat that no one really cares about, but it goes a long way within this group. We know how important he is to this team. I mean, he’s a great guy, too, so it makes it that much better.

“He’s a happy guy, he’s a great teammate. I’m happy he’s on my team.”

In the second year of a two-year, $2.3 million deal, Hagg has played some of his best hockey as an NHLer with restricted free agency ahead this offseason.

"Of course it’s a big year because it’s a contract year, but I went through it two years ago, as well," he said. "Last year, I thought I had a good season and this year, when I’ve been playing, I think I’ve been doing a pretty good job and that’s the only thing I can control. That’s what I’m focusing on. When I’m in the lineup, I want to stick in, so I’m taking every [opportunity] as I can and try to do the best of it.”

Hagg, not an offensive-minded blueliner by any stretch, has joined in on the scoring. Through 47 games, Hagg has put up 13 points (three goals, 10 assists), seven shy of matching his career high.

“I've felt pretty good the whole year, but of course lately, a little bit more offense from my side," he said with a smile. "It’s always fun to put the puck back in the net and getting a few assists here and there."

He even scored the first man advantage goal of his career in the final minute of a 6-2 blowout over the Panthers last month. One power play shot this season, one goal.

“One hundred percent so far, so should be in there," Hagg said with a laugh. "No, it was a fun time, 50 seconds left in the game, it was fun to try how it feels to be out there.

“I feel the whole season has been like that, fun season. I can’t imagine it’s already March."

For Lindblom, Hagg and the Flyers will keep pushing.

"Even though there have been ups and downs during the whole year, in this room, I’ve had a lot of fun this year," Hagg said, "and I think it’s only the start of it, too.”

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Devils reportedly interested in former Flyers head coaches Peter Laviolette, John Stevens

Devils reportedly interested in former Flyers head coaches Peter Laviolette, John Stevens

With the NHL's 24-team return-to-play plan, naturally some hockey fans have enjoyed poking fun at the seven clubs left out of the field.

The Devils being one of them.

But not is all bad for the Flyers' Metropolitan Division foe. New Jersey has a 7.5 percent chance to earn the No. 1 overall draft slot after landing the top pick in 2019 (Jack Hughes) and 2017 (Nico Hischier). For the 2020 draft, the Devils could end up with three first-round selections.

Not an awful spot.

New Jersey is also in the market for a head coach after finishing the 2019-20 campaign with interim bench boss Alain Nasreddine. There are some big fish out there and the Devils could reel one in — possibly a former Flyers head coach. According to a report Thursday by Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman in his latest 31 Thoughts column, New Jersey is eyeing at least four candidates for its vacancy.

Two of them spent time behind the Flyers' bench in 2009-10, when the club made a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

Per Friedman:

As for the coaching search, word is the Devils are eyeing at least four candidates. I believe that includes incumbent Alain Nasreddine, along with Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette and John Stevens. There may be one more. The wrinkle here is that [interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald] did the initial interviews, and will any of them want him as their boss should they be choice? It’s also possible ownership will want a conversation before any decision is made. It’s a unique time to try and hire someone.

Flyers fans had it difficult enough seeing Wayne Simmonds in Devils red for most of this season. Laviolette attempting to lead New Jersey back to playoff hockey for just the second time in nine seasons would be interesting to follow from afar. Nobody would doubt his ability to do it. Laviolette, who was fired by the Predators in January, has taken all four teams he has coached to the playoffs and three of them to the Stanley Cup Final, winning it all with the Hurricanes in 2006.

Stevens hasn't been an NHL head coach since 2018-19, when he was fired by the Kings 13 games into the season. He led the Flyers to back-to-back playoff appearances from 2007 to 2009 and was let go by the club 25 games into the 2009-10 campaign, opening the door for Laviolette's tenure in Philadelphia.

If Laviolette goes to the Devils, he'll have coached four teams now currently in the Metropolitan Division. Alain Vigneault (Rangers, Flyers), Barry Trotz (Capitals, Islanders) and John Tortorella (Rangers, Blue Jackets) have also coached multiple clubs in the division.

Laviolette would certainly give the division another heavy hitter behind the bench.

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2020 NHL playoffs: Flyers' outlook for round robin, first round

2020 NHL playoffs: Flyers' outlook for round robin, first round

The round-robin tournament of the NHL's 24-team return-to-play format will represent different kinds of importance for the fourth-seeded Flyers.

Firstly, they couldn't ask for a better tune-up ahead of their first-round series. They'll play each of the Eastern Conference's top three teams once before meeting their opening-round opponent.

Secondly, those dates with the East's best could help the Flyers climb even more. The total points accumulated in the round-robin tournament will determine the conference's seed Nos. 1-4. If there are ties after the set of games, which will feature regular-season overtime and shootout rules, the regular-season points percentages of each club will serve as the tiebreaker.

How could the Flyers fare in the round-robin portion and what would it ultimately mean for their outlook in the 24-team setup?

Here are three factors to note:

1. Can Flyers win round robin?

They shouldn't be considered heavy underdogs. The Flyers will be confident in their opportunity to improve their seed after going 2-1-0 against the top-seeded Bruins during the regular season and 3-0-1 vs. the third-seeded Capitals. The second-seeded Lightning were the one club that gave the Flyers trouble. The Flyers dropped two games in regulation to Tampa Bay, but one was a 1-0 defeat and the other was a chippy 5-3 loss with an empty-netter in the final 22 seconds.

The Flyers have a goalie who keeps them in games and a group that held its own with the fellow top seeds in major statistical categories:

Goals per game

Lightning — 3.47
Capitals — 3.42
Flyers — 3.29
Bruins — 3.24

Goals against per game

Bruins — 2.39
Flyers — 2.77
Lightning — 2.77
Capitals — 3.07

Power play percentage

Bruins — 25.2
Lightning — 23.1
Flyers — 20.8
Capitals — 19.4

Penalty kill percentage

Bruins — 84.3
Capitals — 82.6
Flyers — 81.8
Lightning — 81.4

2. Wait, would they want to climb?

It's an interesting question right now because the NHL and NHLPA are undetermined on the format for the first and second rounds, whether it be bracketed or reseeding after the qualifying round.

That's a huge question.

Say the Flyers stayed at No. 4 in a bracket-style scenario and the 12th-seeded Canadiens knocked off the fifth-seeded Penguins, the Flyers would face Montreal. On paper, that would be a pretty favorable matchup against the lowest seed in the East. Whereas the No. 1 seed in the conference would face the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup.

If the league instead agrees to reseed, such a scenario would see the No. 1 seed face the Canadiens during the first round, whereas the Flyers, as the fourth seed, would get the highest remaining seed to advance from the qualifying round.

When/if the Flyers play round-robin games, the NHL will have made a decision on the format for the first and second rounds. Right now, just about everything is undecided for the Flyers.

3. The good thing?

The Flyers can't hurt themselves in the round robin. As the lowest seed of the four, they can only improve their seed. If the Flyers struggle, they stay put at No. 4 and at least played three competitive warmup games for their first-round series.

The Flyers went 22-8-5 against the Eastern Conference playoff field during the regular season, so they'll like their chances against whichever team they draw.

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