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What might have gone down as a minor depth trade for the Washington Capitals right before the 2019 Trade Deadline could end up paying huge dividends. Forward Carl Hagelin was flailing with the Los Angeles Kings after being traded to the west coast from the Pittsburgh Penguins in mid-November. Once in L.A., Hagelin saw a lot of bottom-six and mostly fourth-line ice time, putting up a total of five points in 22 games played with the Kings. So when the Capitals acquired him to bolster their roster, most experts and pundits saw it as a fourth-line depth move, nothing impactful. How quickly they have been proven wrong.
Since coming to Washington, Hagelin has been an effective, speedy fore-checking player that has improved every line he has been a part of. Not usually known for his offensive prowess, after being quiet for his first four games in the District, he has put up eight points in 16 games; which would equate to 41 points over 82 games, which would be a season high for the veteran forward. As mentioned before, offense isn’t particularly his strength, rather using his speed and physicality to get to pucks, win battles, and get it to players who can score. He did it for years with the Penguins, helping Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby terrorize teams.
But his time with Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh is something most people will remember Hagelin for. Nicknamed the “HBK Line”, the trio picked opponents apart towards the end of the 2015-2016 season before running over teams in the playoffs on their way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships; a line that individually ended the Capitals a chance at winning a Cup that season. In that series, both Malkin and Crosby were held to a total of THREE 5v5 points; Hagelin alone had SIX 5v5 points (Both Bonino and Kessel had five individually). In addition to no longer having to face that trio, the Capitals may have their own version of HBK line themselves with the addition of Hagelin. Their success going forward into the playoffs could be the very key to a Stanley Cup repeat.
Hagelin started his time with the Capitals on the fourth-line for the first four games but then started to make his way up the lineup and eventually found a golden spot in a Hagelin-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly third-line (the “HEC Line”, perhaps?). It seems every time the trio were on ice together they never left the offensive zone and when they did spend time in the defensive zone, the trio quickly recovered the puck to move it up ice, something the HBK Line was known for.
Let’s see how the the HBK and HEC stack up against each other, both of which were put together in the last month or so before the respective playoffs began in the respective seasons:
Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel: 144 minutes, 61.69xGF%, 66.67% Offensive zone starts, 12-3 5v5 goals
Hagelin-Eller-Connolly: 120 minutes, 64.93xGF%, 58.75% Offensive zone starts, 9-3 5v5 goals
The lines are so similar in the numbers they put up; The “HEC Line” would have almost two more goals if they played 144 minutes (they average one goal every 13 minutes) like the HBK did. Additionally, the two lines put up almost the exact 5v5 Goals For and Against yet the HEC line started in the offensive less and had better Expected Goals For %.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two lines is one boasted Kessel, an elite NHL shooter, which the Capitals certainly don’t have on that third-line, or so it seems. During the season that the HBK line was created, Kessel had 19 5v5 goals (1,131 minutes) with a 10.38 Shooting Percentage. The Capitals have Brett Connolly, who has 21 5v5 goals this season (981 minutes), but is shooting with a 16.67 Shooting Percentage; essentially, Connolly has scored more 5v5 goals in 150 less minutes on ice. He is shooting with a much better shooting percentage though, but it doesn’t look like Connolly will be slowing down anytime soon.
If the Caps’ “HEC Line” can be as effective as the HBK line was three years ago, then the Capitals have a powerful weapon. If the first two lines can stay a threat for the Capitals, opponents will have to choose which of the three they need to defend most. And if a team can throw out three deadly lines, at least one of them will see time against less effective opponents, and that’s where the HEC Line can feast and be truly effective, much like the HBK Line did on their way to a Stanley Cup Championship.
The Capitals have been experimenting Hagelin on the second-line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, which is a very smart idea, however, Hagelin has started the game with the second-line and made his way back to the third-line by game’s end. Head Coach Todd Reirden has been doing a lot of shuffling during games, finding the best matchups depending on the game situation. It’s safe to bet that even if the “HEC Line” don’t start together they will end up together so they can do what they do best as the playoffs get underway for the Caps on Thursday.
By Luke Adomanis