|Niklas Hagman hits the ice in Edmonton during the 2011-12 pre-season. The 31 year-old picked up three points in four exhibition games. |
CALGARY, AB -- When asked about his first full season in a Calgary Flames jersey, Niklas Hagman offers a disappointed head shake and has to take a minute to formulate his thoughts, trying to find the right words to describe one of the hardest seasons he's ever played through.
"It was a rough year," he sighed. "There's no denying that. It started snowballing the wrong way."
The winger is coming off one of the least productive seasons in his career - one in which he was eventually put on waivers and went unclaimed by 29 other clubs.
Throughout the 2010-11 campaign, he mustered 11 goals and 27 points. Prior to last season, Hagman was riding high on three consecutive 20+ goal seasons and averaging around 40 points, leaving many to wonder what brought about such a radical shift in performance.
Hagman points to self-esteem as the primary factor behind the drastic decrease in his offensive totals.
What had made him successful in the past was his ability to read plays and find holes in the defence. Once he found gaps in coverage, he'd use his speed to generate chances for he and his linemates. A deft puckhandler, Hagman's creative use of time and speed ensured he garnered plenty of scoring chances when he was on the ice.
That kind of success is generated by confidence. Hagman had enough faith his own talent to know that he would be able to pull of a particular maneuver or that he would be able to dodge a defenceman with his speed.
That, quite simply, just wasn't the case last year.
"Sometimes you've got to be confident to try different things," he said. "When you don't have confidence, you don't want to do those (things) because you're just too worried it will end up in your own net.
"You've got to play smart defensively but still, there are chances you've just got to read and react to."
In addition to that loss of self-confidence, Hagman suffered a couple of injuries that kept him out of action for 10 games. He abnegated both of those maladies as a justification for his performance, citing them as "excuses" he didn't want to fall back on but one must take into account the fact injuries often tend to nag a player long after they return to the ice, leaving them to doubt their physical limits.
When his disastrous season concluded, Hagman took a step back and reevaluated his off-season training regimen. Flames strength and conditioning coach Rich Hesketh made the long journey over to Finland to monitor the forward's progress and Hagman put in time with a speed skating coach.
"I did different things. I paid a little more attention to my skating. I feel good. I've considered myself as a good skater but now, I felt I lost a little bit of that quickness and breakaway speed."
After enduring the waivers process last year, Hagman knows that if his on-ice play mirrors what management saw in his first full season as a Flame, being shipped down to Abbotsford is not out of the realm of possibilities.
With this in mind, he treated the pre-season as an audition of sorts and the myriad of metaphorical casting directors must have liked what he's brought to the ice.
In the Flames first exhibition tilt, split-squad games against the Vancouver Canucks, Hagman potted two beauties and looked very much like the player that he was when he was reaching the 20-goal plateau on a regular basis.
In his next couple games, his focus appeared to be on polishing his playmaking skills. He looked positively dominant when he was carrying the puck, controlling the forecheck and finding his linemates with passes through small seams. He didn't put up any points but his tenacity on the puck was very noticeable.
Hagman finished off the pre-season in fine fashion, setting up David Moss for the Flames opening goal against the Coyotes with after a crafty passing play between himself and fellow Finn, Olli Jokinen.
Head coach Brent Sutter raved about the winger, making note of how Hagman's off-season training has paid off in more than just a physical way.
"He feels better," he said. "You can see it on the ice. He has life. He's jumping. He's got energy."
The Finn needs to carry over his success from his exhibition contests if he wants to continue to ascend the Flames depth chart. He knows there are several rookies waiting in the wings, ready to pounce and take a spot from a veteran that is not performing at a standard the coaching staff and management want to see.
Subsequently, he may be playing for his career in the NHL as well. Hagman is set to become a UFA next summer and seeing how no team was willing to pluck him off waivers for half of his salary last season, he knows his next contract will be dictated by how well he does this year.
"I feel good. It's fun to play again," he grinned. "I'm just going to try to do everything I can, as well as I can, and see where the pieces fall."
Given how well he has rebounded over the course of the pre-season, it would be a pretty safe bet to say we see the new Niklas Hagman right off the hop this year: revitalized, refreshed and ready to prove himself to the masses.
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