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A Journey Four Years in the Making

Why rookie Robert Hagg is living proof the Flyers development process is paying off

by Bill Meltzer @billmeltzer

Flyers rookie defenseman Robert Hagg is only 22 years of age. He only seems older. 

This stems partially from the poise and maturity of his game and partially because his name first circulated in NHL scouting circles when he was 16. Between then and now, Hagg has taken an arduous path to the National Hockey League but is now paying dividends for the Flyers.

Placed on a blueline pairing in training camp with third-year pro Shayne Gostisbehere, Hagg ran with the opportunity in a quiet and efficient way that has continued early in the regular season. Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol has liked what he's seen from the duo so far, both individually and as a pair.

"Just a real sound player. I think he empowers his partner, in this case Ghost, to go out and do the things that he does well. I think the two of them have competed hard. I thought defensively they had a little bit of chemistry, which is really important. I like the composure of Robert's game," Hakstol said.

Apart from his high degree of poise, the emerging hallmark of Hagg's game is the diversity of his skill set. Among his peers at the professional level, Hagg is not off the charts in any one facet of the game but also lacks major weaknesses. He has good mobility, above-average first pass ability, defends well, uses his size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) effectively in the trenches, and can adapt to partners of different styles. He has come to enjoy and thrive playing within structure.

"Playing with Ghost helps a lot. I look at what Ghost does with the puck and try to learn from it but I just try to play my game. I think I'm a two-way player. I have some skill to make plays but the number one thing is that I try to play solid defense. I try to keep it simple," Hagg said.

Both Gostisbehere and Hagg are lefthanded shooters but both are comfortable playing either left defense or right defense. When the two defensemen were first placed together, Hakstol and assistant coach Gord Murphy allowed them to work out amongst themselves which side each player would play. Gostisbehere, who had spent much of first two NHL seasons on the right side, asked the rookie if he wanted to play on the right. Hagg, who spent much of last season on the AHL's Lehigh Valley on right defense, immediately agreed. 

When a defenseman plays his off-side (meaning a lefthanded shooter on the right side or a righty on left defense), there are a few added challenges. It means having to retrieve and play more pucks along the walls on the backhand. There are adjustments to defending rushes to the outside. One area that gives some off-side defensemen particular trouble is having the puck in a more vulnerable spot against forechecking pressure in front, because the puck is over the middle and harder to shield. 

Much of the attention Hagg has garnered so far has been for his sound body and stick positioning when he does not have the puck. Hakstol, however, has said that it's the sum of Hagg's two-way efficiency that has thus far earned him a spot in the starting lineup every game. He and Gostisbehere seem to read and react off one another well, both through verbal and non-verbal communication.

"Hagger is a very quiet, very solid player. That is not just without the puck, he is real sound with it as well, he does positive things with it. As a defenseman, your main role is defend and move the puck out of the zone and do it efficiently and Hagger does a good job of that," Hakstol said.

"Ghost is competing extremely hard without the puck and you know I don't have to go there in terms of what he can do with the puck, that pair has a little bit of mojo, a little bit of chemistry now. Bottom line, they are just playing hard and they are playing hard together."

Although he doesn't have the reputation of being a "mean" player or crushing body checker, Hagg has never been a player who has been shy about doing battle in the trenches or along the boards. This aspect of the defensemen's game has subtly expanded as he's gained experience.

"That has always been a part of his game," said Hakstol. "But he's not out there looking for big hits. He's a heavy body and you know he uses his skating ability and his size to his advantage, he's pretty good in terms of separating people from pucks with using his body and its not about the big hit, it's about coming up with possession and being able to move it."

The process that got Hagg to his current point of development was not an easy or fast one. It took the player a long time to find an identity and a groove as a professional player and then to parlay it to a niche in the NHL.

A high-scoring junior defenseman in the famed Modo Hockey development program in Sweden, Hagg moved up to become a regular starter on their men's pro team at the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) level at age 17. Physically, he was already ahead of the curve and he had potential to become an impact player both offensively and defensively. Hagg was also a regular on the Swedish national junior team, playing in the IIHF Under-20 World Championship tournament (AKA World Junior Championships) at ages 17, 18 and 19.

Two seasons ahead of his eligibility for the 2013 NHL Draft, Hagg was touted by some scouts as a potential future first-round draft pick. The infatuation with him lasted early into the 2012-13 season. 

For example, International Scouting Services (ISS) in 2012 ranked him third (behind Seth Joes and Josh Morrissey) in offensive upside from the blueline and either as "good" or "very good" in every major scouting category, including size and strength, skating, puck skills, shot, offensive play, defensive play, physical play, competitiveness and hockey sense. He also ranked high in the Central Scouting mid-terms for European skaters. 

Almost inevitably, when a player is on the scouting radar for as long as Hagg, there is an eventual backlash. Some inconsistencies in his performance, critical re-evaluations of some of his decision making and a misperception of Hagg's laid-back demeanor as one lacking focus resulted in his draft projections falling. The ISS 2013 Draft Preview listed Hagg 31st overall in its final ranking and fourth on its "Most Overrated" list. 

The Flyers owned the 11th and 41st overall picks of the 2013 Draft. Sensing opportunity and enamored of hulking QMJHL defenseman Samuel Morin, the Flyers began the process of stocking up on defense prospects with the selection of Morin in the first round. Hagg, whom the Flyers still considered a first-round caliber prospect, was still on the board at 41st. Philadelphia pounced quickly. Along with the selection of Union College defenseman Gostisbehere the previous year, the Flyers now had the beginnings of a blue line prospect pipeline.

That process would in subsequent years with the first-round selection of Travis Sanheim in 2014, the first-round selection of Ivan Provorov in 2015, the free agent signing of undrafted Philippe Myers, as well as the 2014 third-round selection of Mark Friedman.

In the meantime, Hagg's post-draft path to the NHL was an arduous one. At age 19, he joined the AHL's Phantoms (then still in Glens Falls, NY, as the Adirondack Phantoms) for the final 10 games of the 2013-14 season. He produced four points and a plus-one rating at even strength. The next season, Hagg played his first full AHL campaign with the rechristened Lehigh Valley Phantoms after the team's relocation to Allentown. 

"I wanted to show what I could do," Hagg said. "I didn't really know what to expect. I always saw myself as a two-way player, not just offensive or defensive. I always tried to play good defense. But I also thought I could be a guy who on the power play, make [stretch] passes and stuff like that."

Initially cast in a somewhat more offense-oriented role in his pairings, Hagg showed an accurate point shot on the power play and was among the AHL leaders in shots on goal through the first quarter of his rookie season. However, the teenager's play on both sides of the puck lacked identity and confidence.

The young Swede was regularly encouraged to simply his game and steep himself in a more structured approach. For example, he was advised to cut down on long-distance pass attempts and to play the body defensively rather than getting over-focused on the puck. 

Things sank in eventually but it took time. An up-and-down rookie season was followed by a rough first three-quarters of Hagg's second season. A few times, he sat out as a healthy scratch.

Flyers development coach Kjell Samuelsson put in many hours on and off the ice trying to help Hagg find his way. So, too, did Phantoms assistant coach Kerry Huffman after joining the staff for the 2016-17 season. However, most of the credit for Hagg's eventual turnaround belongs to the player himself.

Pleasant and almost invariably polite and soft-spoken off the ice, Hagg's quiet demeanor masked a determined inner drive to become an NHL player by any means necessary. Over the final quarter of the 2015-16 season, things started to fall into place for him. That carried over throughout a rock-solid 2016-17 campaign. By now, Hagg regularly match up against other AHL teams' top lines. 

Hagg was rewarded with an NHL recall to the Flyers for the final game of the 2016-17 regular season against the Carolina Hurricanes. In a game that almost resembled a preseason atmosphere, the Canes paid no attention to guarding against Flyers defensemen pinching up on the play. As a result, Hagg took advantage of the swatches of open ice to join the attack for no fewer than three near-goals. More important, he showed hints of a strong game without the puck as well as in getting pucks quickly and accurately up to the forwards on breakouts. 

Always a player that paid attention to fitness, Hagg arrived at the Flyers 2017 training camp in excellent physical condition. He won a job and carried his burgeoning confidence over into the regular season.

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