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As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat em’, join em’.” Well, it isn’t exactly like that, but the Washington Capitals got tired of playing against Carl Hagelin almost every playoffs the last eight years and decided to acquire the forward prior to the 2019 Trade Deadline.
Hagelin has played 121 playoff games and nearly 30% of them have been against the Caps, stemming from his time with the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Hagelin played in six playoff series against the Capitals over that span and won five of them, the only loss coming last season, when the Caps marched through the Penguins en route to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Now that an old foe is on the Capitals’ side it’s time to decide what to do with him exactly. First, it’s important to understand what Hagelin brings to the table. The most obvious positive attribute is his speed. Not many players are as fast or nimble than Hagelin. He may be small, but he’s feisty and fearless. And when one adds speed and tenacity it becomes a force to be reckoned with. This leads many to believe he’ll just be a good fourth-line addition. Which is fine to start, but to keep Hagelin so low in the lineup as the season goes on it wouldn’t be utilizing his skills properly.
It’s the combination of speed and a forechecking ability that has allowed Hagelin to spend so much time with elite players over the last four seasons like Evgeni Malkin (1,051 minutes), Sidney Crosby (262 minutes), and Phil Kessel (1,017 minutes) in Pittsburgh. He brings real value in middle-six form that makes great players even better. Malkin away from Hagelin yielded a -6.72% in High Danger Chances For% (HDCF%); Crosby away from Hagelin was -10.59 HDCF%; and Kessel away from him was -8.04 HDCF%. He made all of those players better when he was on the ice with them.
This graph by HockeyViz shows everything Hagelin is about. He’s a truly effective player in the defensive zone and can help create offense by moving the puck up ice quickly. It’s only a bonus that he’s amazing on the penalty kill as well. And this isn’t just because he’s played with great players. According to EvolvingWild Goals Above Replacement Charts, Hagelin was the Penguins’ second-best forward in the 2017-2018 season, and he was fifth-best in 2016-2017. It would seem like a big waste to keep Hagelin on the fourth-line when he brings a lot more to the table than other fourth-liners. So where should he play in the lineup?
The question one has to ask is where do the Caps need the most defensive help? It’s no secret that Evgeny Kuznetsov has some defensive issues. Wouldn’t it make perfect sense to put a very defensive-minded, fast winger next to him? They are already doing that with Kuznetsov by putting Tom Wilson on his wing, but when Alexander Ovechkin, another player who can struggle defensively, is on the other wing there’s only so much Wilson can do. As shown above, Hagelin has a history of being that defensive support to elite talents. His back-checking speed and defensive IQ allows his counterparts to get up ice to do the damage. If they sandwich Kuznetsov between Hagelin and Wilson, he’ll get the defensive help he needs, but still get teammates with speed and skill.
If there is one knock on Hagelin, it’s his shooting. There’s good news and bad news when it comes to him firing the puck. The good news is he shootd a lot. His 169 shots last season would have been third among all Cap forwards. The bad news is his shot isn’t great. His career shooting percentage is 9.8%. That isn’t terrible, but his average over the last three seasons is 4.56%, which is horrific and unlucky. But if he plays up in the lineup with a player like Kuznetsov setting him up, that percentage probably will increase and he could probably hit double-digit in goals (averaged to an 82-game season).
It’s okay Hagelin isn’t a sniper or huge point-getter, as his strength lies in his speedy defensive game, which the Caps need both of. And moving Hagelin up in the lineup allows them to create three very dangerous scoring lines; for example, say the Capitals go Ovechkin-Backstrom-Vrana, Hagelin-Kuznetsov-Wilson, Burakovsky-Eller-Oshie as their top three lines. When Oshie is on the “third” line one knows it’s a good lineup. And the lineup doesn’t have to be exactly that, but that important part is moving Hagelin up so a more threatening lineup can be created. He could certianly make the fourth-line slightly better, but he could make the top nine a lot better.
By Luke Adomanis