Carl Hagelin has become known for a lot of things during his rookie season with the New York Rangers -- his speed, his tenacity on the forecheck, and his ability to meld on the top line with superstars Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards.
Senators fans will likely see him differently for quite some time after his elbow knocked captain Daniel Alfredsson out of Games 3-5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, but pugnacity and physicality are the least of the many reasons why Hagelin has become a major part of the Rangers after failing to make the team out of training camp.
Hagelin was suspended three games for that elbow and will return to the lineup for Game 6 on Monday night with the Rangers trailing in the best-of-seven-series 3-2.
Ryan Callahan said. "He brings a lot of speed to the lineup. You can see it on the forecheck. He causes turnovers. It's going to be nice to have him back."
After sliding up and down the lineup after he was recalled from the AHL in November, Hagelin finally found a home on a line with Richards in late December. About two months later, Gaborik was moved to the top line, and they have been a consistent threat ever since.
Gaborik and Richards get the headlines as the Rangers' two highest-paid forwards and leading scorers, but it's Hagelin's play on the wing that has quietly helped make the difference.
"Hags is the first man on the puck," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "That's a big part for a young guy, playing without the puck, understanding what you need to do without the puck and chasing it down like that is important. That's been important for his two linemates. We always talk about Richie and Gabby, but I'll tell you, I think Hags is just as important as either one of those guys if that line's going to work."
Hagelin has a role similar to that of Alexandre Burrows in Vancouver when he's on a line with the Sedin twins. Each unit has a sniper (Gaborik/Daniel) and a playmaker (Richards/Henrik) while Hagelin and Burrows both use their speed to wreak havoc on defensemen and force turnovers.
"That's my job description, to chase down the puck and create turnovers and try to let those guys do what they're good at it -- creating chances and making offensive plays," Hagelin said. "It's tough in the playoffs. You’re not going to get a lot of chances, but you have to bury them when you get them."
Tortorella admitted he really wanted Hagelin on his roster when the team broke camp, but the Rangers decided it would be best for his development if he spent some time with the Connecticut Whale learning the finer points of playing without the puck.
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The Rangers called up Hagelin on Nov. 24, and he delivered 14 goals and 24 assists in 64 games. More importantly to Tortorella, Hagelin grasped the details of positioning during his time in the AHL and carried that over to the NHL.
"I wanted him out of camp," Tortorella said. "I think we needed other kids to make our team. I was hoping a couple others would show something, it didn't happen for some. He was the closest one at that time. But I think the best decision we made was to get him down there and play. I believe that coaching staff did a really job of making him aware about positioning. He still has a lot of things to learn about the game, but he is improving. It started down there.
"The biggest thing for a guy coming to the League, be it college, junior, whatever it may be, is away from the puck. It's positioning away from the puck, understanding game situations away from the puck. The guys down in Hartford did a really good job."
Hagelin's biggest asset is his world-class speed. At the All-Star Game in Ottawa, he won the fastest skater competition by narrowly edging Senators rookie Colin Greening. Richards believes Hagelin's quickness isn't just an asset when it comes to beating defensemen one-on-one, but it comes in handy in creating space for others.
"Speed helps," Richards said. "It's not always beating a guy wide with the puck. It just helps the whole tempo of the game and creating more ice behind him, and a lot of times I can get in there and get pucks and make plays.
"If you can get the pucks, that helps so much. There's some games when you're not quite there, you're chasing the puck all night. We feel if we have the puck, we're feeling good, we're going to get scoring chances. Some nights it's going to be Hags, some nights it's going to be Gabby, some nights it's me. The constant in everything is Hags is always doing something to pressure somebody or back them off.
"He's always around, he's quick. He causes them to do things sometimes a little quicker than they'd like or not as patient as they'd like. That'll create turnovers. He's always buzzing."
The Rangers scored three goals in three games without Hagelin and just one goal at even strength. Getting him back with the season on the line could make all the difference for the Rangers.
"Let's hope he does," Tortorella said.
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