VOORHEES, N.J. — If you wanted to hang a banner that represented the thoughts of Flyers fans, perhaps the most prominent message at the Wells Fargo Center would read “Play the Kids.”
And if you look up and down the Flyers' roster, it would appear Dave Hakstol shares that same sentiment.
On a nightly basis, you’ll find 19-year-old Nolan Patrick, 21-year-olds Oskar Lindblom, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, and more recently 22-year-old Travis Sanheim. All of this youth is why the Flyers are one of the youngest teams in the Eastern Conference.
But sometimes it’s not enough, and more recently, the most perplexing decision has been to sit the most seasoned rookie, 23-year-old Robert Hagg, who was on track to play all 82 games until an injury sidelined him for the first time on March 10.
“First of all, if you told me a young player would play 70-something games, I would be pretty good with that,” general manager Ron Hextall said. “It’s not like you’re expecting him to play every single game. Hagg has done a good job for us and I know when he comes back in, he’ll do a good job for us.”
From a solid job to now no job, Hagg appears to be the first Flyers player this season to lose his role after sustaining an injury.
“I don’t know, maybe,” Hagg said. “I played two games since I came back. Hexy wanted to get me back, as well, to get the timing right and all that stuff. It is what it is and you have to deal with it. The team is doing pretty well right now, so getting into the playoffs is all that matters.”
Despite spending most of the season on the right side of Andrew MacDonald, Hagg was paired with Radko Gudas in his two-game return and it proved to be a choppy combination. Then again, so has Sanheim and Gudas and at times, Brandon Manning with Gudas.
Sunday against the Bruins, Gudas was clearly the worst of the Flyers' six defensemen, especially in the Flyers' end of the ice, while committing the types of mistakes you’d expect to see from a rookie like Hagg, who had played rather consistently for much of the season.
“He wasn’t clean enough with the puck,” Hakstol said Sunday about Gudas. “Games come down to small plays and how efficient you are with the puck, especially when you’re playing against good players, it's important. There was a couple of those tonight. In most cases, he had second effort that helped them clean it up, but there was a couple of plays that he needs to be cleaner on.”
When Sanheim returned to the Flyers following an 18-game stint with the Phantoms, Hakstol was cautious to not pair him with Gudas again, and consequently, Sanheim has played considerably better with MacDonald.
Like Gudas, Hagg hits hard while separating the player from the puck, he’s capable of killing penalties, blocking shots and positionally it appears the rookie is just as reliable.
Or maybe not.
“[The coaches] see about 50 times more video than what we see,” Hextall said. “Yeah, you tend to err on experience, but if a young guy does it and can do it, coaches will give him a chance.”
And with Hagg, you can’t help but wonder when that chance will come again.