The Great Debate - Where Does Robert Hagg Stand Among His Peers?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Robert Hagg had a sophomore slump in 2015-16, but he's poised for a comeback in 2016-17. Photo: Nina Weiss/The Home News
Editor's Note: This is the second of many player profile features that will be completed and posted online to give an accurate update on the players' development paths, skill set, potential NHL ceiling and more. Most player profiles will also include exclusive thoughts from both the player and the coaching staff with in-depth assessment/comments.

If you missed the first player profile, it featured forward Cole Bardreau and can be found here.

Once regarded as one of the organization's top prospects on defense, Robert Hagg entered his second season of pro hockey in the shadows behind guys like Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Shayne Gostibehere and Sam Morin.

Hagg's play this past season leaves much to be desired by both the organization and the coaching staff in Lehigh Valley, but a strong finish to his AHL campaign in the month of April will hopefully be a sign of good things to come.

It's often easy to forget that Hagg is only 21 years old, and that the transition from the larger rink in European pro hockey doesn't happen overnight. Unfortunately, some of his habits/tendencies on breakouts from the defensive zone in Europe remained with him this season in North America. The smaller ice requires quicker decision-making, something Hagg wasn't doing well for a majority of the season and something that sort of went by unnoticed/uncorrected in his rookie season two years ago.

It's tough to tell what the future holds for Hagg in terms of where his game is at. He seemed to be turning the corner on a sophomore slump to forget about, but with so many blue line prospects in the system at the pro level (Gostisbehere, Morin, Sanheim) and even more on the way still in junior leagues (Provorov and Phillipe Myers) Hagg's time to shine is quickly running out. If there isn't a noticeable improvement this upcoming season he will likely be lost in the shuffle.

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The Basics

Player: Robert Hagg
Position: Defense
Height/Weight: 6-2, 201 pounds
How Acquired: Drafted by Flyers in 2nd round (41st overall) in 2013
Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent in 2018-19

Skill Set: Puck-moving, two-way defender
NHL Comparable: ??? Offer up your thoughts in the comments
Potential NHL Ceiling: 2nd/3rd pairing defenseman

Hagg's Background

Hagg spent two years with MODO in Sweden's top professional league before joining the Phantoms at the tail end of the 2013-14 season for his first taste of North American pro hockey. He wasn't much of a point producer in Sweden, recording just seven points (one goal. six assists) in 77 regular season contests, but ended up with four points (one goal, three assists) in 10 games with the Phantoms before committing to play in North America full-time in 2014-15 as a 19-year-old.

Here's where the perception of Hagg based on his statline from his rookie season begins to be a little deceiving as compared to his production in his sophomore AHL campaign this past season. Surely there weren't many expecting a 20-point season from Hagg two years ago, but with Shayne Gostisbehere missing the year with his ACL injury and increased usage from November of that season on, Hagg was playing 25-30 minutes a night. First unit power play time, offensive zone starts, first and last minute of a period, late game situations, you name it.

While the transition to the smaller rink appeared to be going well from a distance, there were still quite a bit of struggles for Hagg in his rookie season. Having talked to him regularly in the 2014-15 season - the innaugural season for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms - Hagg admitted that the 76-game AHL schedule was very physically demanding and that he was not used to playing so many games.

Add in the fact that he played in the 2015 World Junior Championships for his native Sweden team and Hagg played nearly 30 more games than he was used to. Instead of multiple lengthy breaks like he was used to in Sweden's pro league schedule, it was a couple of days for Christmas break and a few days for the AHL All-Star break and that was it in the North American game.

Then head coach Terry Murray reflected after the season that Hagg wasn't physically in good enough shape to be at the top of his game on a consistent basis in his rookie season. Nothing that was all too surprising considering the transition from Sweden and the fact that he was only 19-years-old and still physically maturing. But hey, he put up 20 points as a rookie in the North American pro game so all in all it was a successful experience to that point. Right?

Hagg's 2015-16 Season in Review

After a learning experience last year with the Phantoms in his first year of North American pro hockey saw him put up 20 points (three goals, 17 assists) in 69 games, many thought Hagg would really take his game to the next level this season and possibly even put his name into the conversation for an NHL look down the stretch.

That obviously wasn't the case. Hagg certainly struggled in his sophomore season at the AHL level, both offensively and defensively. With just two goals and three assists on his first 40 games, he wasn't looking like the same player on the ice that he was the year before.

But why, and how?

It didn't help that Hagg was injured in the second game of the season and missed the rest of October. That put him behind of getting into a groove early on. While his rookie season showed he needed better conditioning to be able to physically handle the grueling AHL schedule, Hagg actually came into the season in much better physical shape prior to the injury.

When back in the lineup in November, December and January it was often as a third pairing defenseman with limited ice time and limited usage. Hagg rarely saw the ice on the power play or late in games.

Hagg was stuck near the bottom of the depth chart with Andrew MacDonald starting the season with the Phantoms as well as Shayne Gostisbehere, Sam Morin, Mark Alt and veteran Davis Drewiske all ahead of him in terms of ice time.

Phantoms head coach Scott Gordon wasn't exactly forthcoming when asked about Hagg's situation at first, until mid-February in a sit down interview after a team practice.

The first time Gordon was asked about Hagg, after a game in Wilkes-Barre against the rival Penguins before the All-Star break, he danced around the question of why Hagg was a healthy scratch the previous game.

"We have eight defensemen, so someone has to sit," was all Gordon said about it back on January 30th.

After Hagg scored his second goal of the season in a 7-2 win over Binghamton on February 10th, he was back to sitting out as a healthy scratch the team's next game - a 3-1 loss to Portland. It was his second stint as a healthy scratch in the team's previous five games and third in 10 contests.

While still choosing his words carefully, Gordon explained his decision of why Hagg had been rotating in and out of the lineup on the back end. Simply put, it was a numbers game and Hagg hadn't played nearly as well as the other five defensemen on the roster who held down a regular spot in the lineup.

"Just overall, I think he's capable of playing better," Gordon said of Hagg in February. "With us having 8 defensemen someone has to sit out so basically it's been him, Max Lamarche & Christian Marti. He's one of three and he's no different than the other two guys - that's where they are on the depth chart."

Gordon wasn't around for Hagg's rookie season last year, but assistant coach Riley Cote was. Gordon had an interesting comment about why Hagg's rookie season might not have been a true sign of how well he was playing versus how well he is not playing this year.

"I think he probably played too much last year as a first year player," the Phantoms' first year head coach said. "Equating playing a lot and playing effectively sometimes don't go hand in hand. Because of all the injuries they had (last year) he played probably more than he should have and as a result he probably didn't have the focus in certain areas that he needed to get better at."

What Gordon did with Hagg in the middle and late part of the season was work on his decision-making with the puck on his breakouts from the defensive zone - making the simple play versus looking for the stretch pass and being forced into making a bad play. In the offensive zone, it was as easy as getting shots off from the point a little quicker and keeping his head up to better assess the pressure and when & where to get shots off from.

With Gostisbehere long gone with the Flyers and Andrew MacDonald called up to Philadelphia shortly after the AHL All-Star break in the beginning of February, Hagg saw an increased workload. The extended ice time in all situations combined with several conversations with the coaching staff working on his game and adjusting his focus helped Hagg's game down the stretch.

Entering April with six points (two goals, four assists) in 59 games, Hagg went on to tally five points (three goals, two assists) in his final eight games of the season with Lehigh Valley - playing on the second power play unit and seeing time with the newly assigned Travis Sanheim. The two played well together and could possibly be a duo that Gordon uses next season.

Hagg By The Numbers

2015-16 Season Stats: 65GP, 5G-6A, -11, 42 PIM
2015-16 Season Grade: C+

October Grade: Incomplete

October Stats: 2 games played, 0G-0A, -2, 0 PIM

Hagg was injured in the second game of the season and has skated at practice this week in a non-contact jersey, signaling he might make his return to the lineup this weekend for the team's 2nd three-in-three set.

November Grade: C+
November Stats: 14GP, 0G-2A, +1, 6 PIM

Hagg missed most of October with an undisclosed injury and seems to be a little too passive in his play, playing a much more conservative style of play than last season. It's possible he was told by Flyers management to play a quieter more steady game, but he looks to be almost too passive and not joining the play offensively.

December Grade: C+
December Stats: 13GP, 1G-1A, Even, 4 PIM

Hagg has been critical of his own play, but two of his four points on the season are in his last four games. He's played a bit on the top pairing with Andrew MacDonald and has been a bit conservative with his decision-making and willingness to jump in the play. Not that he plays with a lack of intensity, but he almost seems too calm and mellow back there most times.

January Grade: D
January Stats: 10GP, 0G-0A, -6, 16 PIM

Head coach Scott Gordon danced around my question about Hagg's absence as a healthy scratch the last weekend of the month, chalking it up to having eight defensemen on the roster. It's no secret, however, that Hagg's play has dropped off in the last month or so. Hagg himself told me the message from the coaching staff is simple. He needs to be better.

Febraury Grade: B-
February Stats: 10GP, 1G-1A, -1, 2 PIM

Since his short stint as a healthy scratch and likely in Scott Gordon's doghouse, Hagg is getting back on track and playing much better hockey of late. Hagg himself admitted he needs to be better in a 1-on-1 interview with The Home News earlier this month.

March Grade: C+
March Stats: 11GP, 0G-0A, -5, 4 PIM

Hagg himself admitted he needs to be better and while it's hard to tell from his stat line and the team's overall play, the second year pro is showing signs of getting back to where his game needs to be. He's still very passive and super conservative with his decision making, but that could be a result of a general lack of confidence from enduring a rough sophomore campaign.

April Grade: A-
April Stats: 8GP, 3G-2A, +3, 12 PIM

Hagg's play in the final month of the season is what head coach Scott Gordon and assistant coach Riley Cote want from the Swedish-born defender. Gordon mentioned Hagg's decision making and a "still playing in Europe" mentality that was the cause for his troubles this season, hopefully something that has been worked out and will have Hagg back on track entering next season where he looks to be a big part of the Phantoms' blue line in 2016-17.

Hagg's Thoughts

On his limited ice time weighing on his mind earlier this season:
In the beginning, of course it was frustrating. I thought about it a lot. You [feel like you] can't do anything about it. The only thing you could do is go in and do the best you can every shift you get and hope the ice time will go up after that.
On if the final stretch of games was a chance at redemption for his play earlier in the season:
Absolutely, the only thing you can do is do is make the best of it. I've had a pretty tough season so far, so hopefully I can do better the last 25 games.
On working on his all around game and turning the corner towards the end of the season:
I'm feeling like these last 10-15 games I'm playing better and better, it sucks that the season is over. Some seasons you are going to have a lot of downs, and that's what I think I had this year. I have to just keep digging into it, coming here every day and pushing myself even harder when it's going a bit slow. I think I've done that this year and here in the end I'm getting something positive out of it.
On the late-season offensive surge breeding confidence in his game:
Definitely. When you're setting up points, of course you are building confidence. You're feeling much better out there. I always try to find the shooting lane. Earlier this season I don't know why I didn't [get shots through]. It seemed like it always hit a stick or a leg, or a defensemen in front. You have to take care of the opportunities you have. 
Coaches Comments

Lehigh Valley Phantoms' Assistant Coach Riley Cote

On Hagg's mindset entering this past season:
A guy like Hagg, playing all the situations he did last year, it was a little bit of a wake up call and reality check this year when you start off the season with AMac, Ghost, Morin and even Drewiske. All of a sudden he was kind of looking where he stood in the organization.
On how Hagg handled the adversity this past season:
It can go two ways with those situations. You can feel sorry for yourself and go the other way, but I thought he responded in a positive matter. He’s playing more physical, he’s more engaged. Everything he’s doing is better the last month and a half. He went from wherever you think he stood to one of our better defensemen, so props to him for figuring it out and responding to adversity. That’s what it’s all about – there’s always two ways to go in every situation and I think he went in the right direction for sure.
Phantoms' Head Coach Scott Gordon

On the biggest change Hagg has had to make to be successful (in April):
I think he’s looking with his head up before he shoots the puck. That’s the biggest thing. We had a conversation about him getting the puck and just shooting as hard as he could without any thought process as to how the pressure was look. Now all of a sudden he’s finding a seam to shoot through. He’s finding options toward the net, you can’t do that if you get the puck and just bury your head and shoot it. That’s the biggest change that he’s had.
A really detailed, in-depth answer about why Hagg struggled in 2015-16:
Basically for four or five months, his idea of transition was getting the puck and going for the home run play at the far blue line, waiting for options to materialize that never materialized. The pressure was coming to him and he was retreating back into the zone and my conversation with him throughout the year – this isn’t Europe. When you play in a bigger rink you have the opportunity if you don’t like it, to take it back. Because the rink is bigger, the forwards have more room to move around. The seams are bigger, the spacing is different and there’s more things you can make happen not just from a possession standpoint but how the pressure comes from the opposition. European hockey is a lot more patience on the fore-check. So what I said to him is that you’re playing like you are over in Europe that you have all that time and space. Then what’s happening when you don’t get your option you have cornered yourself so you can’t make a play. And then you’re making a last ditch effort, icing the puck and then you’re stuck in your zone which in turn means you can’t play in the offensive zone. You’re playing tired because you needed a change. 
The whole thing snowballed from what he was doing with the puck. Combine that with shots getting blocked and coming right back at him. He’s now playing more in the offensive zone because of his decisions with the puck to make the easier 10-foot pass than to try to go for the 120-foot pass. As a result, there is less turnovers and he’s getting up into the play. You pass from the goal line to the far blue line you can’t be a part of the attack. Put that all together and that’s where he is today.
Final Analysis

Hagg appears to have a larger role coming on the Phantoms in 2016-17, and could be part of what looks to be a pretty solid top-four back end with Sam Morin, Mark Alt and Travis Sanheim.

It's pretty simple and point blank. Hagg needs to be better next season or risk falling out of place in the organization with all of the highly regarded young talent on defense in the system. The encouraging thing is the way he finished the season this year, playing a more engaging and physical style while also making simpler plays while breaking the puck out of the zone.

This upcoming fall is a big one for Hagg, who needs to show he can put it all together and bring it on a consistent 76-game AHL schedule.


James Minger said...

NHL Comparison? Hagg's potential combined with his inconsistent (frustrating) development reminds me of Thomas Hickey. Once upon a time, Hickey ranked not too far behind Drew Daughty for the Kings.

Given the defensive prospect depth and barring an eureka moment from Hagg, I see no way that he makes it to the NHL in the Flyers organization. If he doesn't end up back in Europe, NHL success will come much in the same way like Hickey's in that it will be years from now and there will be a couple of organizations in-between now and then.


I've been loving these prospect updates! Keep up the great work, Tony!

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