Robert Hagg has always been sort of an afterthought.
Even though he was a second-round pick, he was overshadowed -both literally and figuratively- by the towering Sam Morin taken in the first round of his draft year. Then Shayne Gostisbehere, who was drafted the year before, started to really break out with Union College. Then came along first-round picks Travis Sanheim (2014) and Ivan Provorov (2015). Add in an undrafted free agent like Philippe Myers and before you know it, Hagg went from one of the best (of a few) defensive prospects to number six or lower on the totem pole.
But now it’s his turn.
After putting in the work for four seasons, including three-plus seasons in the AHL with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, it looks like it’s Hagg’s time. The Swedish defenseman has been in the organization for what seems like longer than four years, but he is still only 22. He has progressed well with the Phantoms and is the most experienced Flyers’ defensive prospect.
Hagg’s point totals were highest in his first AHL season, but those don’t tell the whole story. Last season he totaled 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) and a plus-10 rating in 58 games. His game has grown in each and every season.
“Robert’s progression has been really, really impressive,” said Ron Hextall via NHL.com. “He came over as a 19-year-old, played up in Glens Falls in the American League and, at age 19, held his own. As a 20-year-old he was not bad. And this year he’s taken it to another level. He’s an all-situation, very dependable player.”
Dependable is a great word to describe Hagg. While we’ve seen the flash from Gostisbehere, the big hits and fights from Morin, and the top-pair talent of Provorov (and soon Sanheim), Hagg brings a simpler game. We saw a glimpse of that during his NHL debut back in April.
Hagg played over 20 minutes in his NHL debut, and he was given a shot to play with the Flyers’ best defensemen. He spent half of his time with Provorov, undoubtedly the Flyers’ top defenseman last season, and the other half of the game with Gostisbehere. Hagg showed off his simple two-way game in what was an impressive NHL debut.
It wasn’t necessarily a meaningful game for the team, but pairing Hagg with those two guys showed what the Flyers think of him. Hopefully he has impressed enough that they can depend on him to play those middle-pair minutes this season.
We’ve seen the Flyers’ prospects trickle into the NHL over the past few seasons. First it was Gostisbehere in 2015, then Provorov and Konecny last year, and this season it’s expected that at least three or four rookies make the team out of camp.
Up front you have Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom, two rookies that should be able to make the team, and on the back end you have a handful of guys battling for roster spots.
The Flyers let two defensemen walk this summer in Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz. They have yet to sign anyone, so it’s clear that those two spots on the blueline are up for the taking. Hagg’s experience makes him one of the front runners along with Morin, but don’t sleep on Sanheim or even Myers. It’s going to be a good battle.
“We don’t plan on going out and signing veterans on the back end,” said Hextall prior to the offseason. “Our kids, it’s time to give them a shot, and we’re going to do that.”
Hextall has said that he might sign a defenseman to a PTO for training camp to heat up the competition, but I’m not sure if that’s necessary. There is enough internal battling that should create healthy competition in camp.
It’s tough to get a good general manager to tip his hand before he makes a decision, and Ron Hextall is no different. While he has reiterated that the roster spots are there for the taking, he will only promote them if they prove themselves.
When asked about realistic possibilities for the roster, Hextall said “those guys all have to come in and show us they’re good enough to not only make the team but make us a better team.”
He knows the kids might be ready, but it’s in their hands.
“Just to sit here and say, ‘OK, we’re going to put five rookies on the team,’ well I don’t know in three weeks, five weeks, if five rookies are going to be ready or if three rookies or two rookies. It’s pretty dangerous to say, ‘We’re going to put this many rookies on the team,'” Hextall said via the Courier Post.
While he won’t show his cards too much, it’s been evident over the past few seasons that he will err on the side of caution. Provorov and Konecny came out last September and blew the Flyers away in order to make the roster. This season the rookies will have to do the same thing, and he may defer to the more experienced ones.
“You try to have that balance between how many you have, but a lot of it has to do with what stage they’re at. A lot of our guys have spent time in the minors,” Hextall said of the Flyers prospects. “They’re not coming straight out of junior hockey where they’ve played 72 games against little boys and they’re not big and strong. Our guys are pretty mature. So the guys that are vying for spots on our team, they’re not 18 or 19-year-olds. Other than Nolan, they’re guys who have put their time in and hopefully they’re ready to make an impact at this level.”
If you read between the lines a little bit it seems like that Hextall is speaking about Hagg, as well as the other defensemen, in the above quote. Hagg is 22 years old and has spent his time in the AHL. He has played over 200 games against near-NHL level competition with the Phantoms. He knows the grind of a full season against his peers and strong men. Morin (22) and Sanheim (21) are no slouches either, but the extra AHL season for Hagg gives him a step up.
All in all there are two roster spots open on the blue line, with a chance for a third prospect to remain with the team and force a veteran (Andrew MacDonald) to the press box or AHL. Hagg’s experience, dependability, and simple two-way game makes him the front-runner out of the defensive prospects. Sam Morin and Travis Sanheim are right behind him, and it wouldn’t be a total shock here if all three make it out of camp.
Hagg might not have the highest ceiling of the prospects, but he has one of the highest floors. He will likely be a solid bottom-four defenseman for the Flyers in this season and possibly beyond.
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