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Hagman rolls up sleeves, ready to work

by Dan Rosen

Before Niklas Hagman put pen to paper Tuesday, the Finnish forward called one of his countrymen to research the hockey operation in Toronto.

Vesa Toskala sold Hagman on the Maple Leafs.

"When Toronto contacted my agent and me, after I spoke with the coach and GM, I wanted to call Ves and he had only good things to say about the place," Hagman said. "Knowing him and what he said made me more certain that it would be a good fit for me."

So Hagman, who is spending the summer at his home in Espoo, Finland, joined the Leafs' rebuilding project by signing a four-year contract. Hagman scored a career-high 27 goals and 41 points for the Dallas Stars last season.

"That's one of the reasons I wanted the longer contract," Hagman said of joining the rebuilding Leafs. "I believe for me to get a big role on the team, I can help the team to win. It was a priority for me to get on a team that is going to be good."

Hagman understands why some members of Leafs Nation are worried his 27 goals last season were more of an aberration than the norm. He scored 17 the year before, but that was seven better than his previous career high of 10.

He has only 80 goals in 481 career games, but Hagman said part of the reason his number ballooned to 27 this past season is because the Stars gave him a chance to play more minutes, including time on both the penalty kill and power play.

Hagman delivered with four shorthanded goals and four more power-play goals.

"I kind of understand people saying I scored 17 and then 27 so maybe I won't do it every year, but I feel good and I'll be in good shape so I don't think it should be too much of an issue," Hagman said. "I believe I bring a lot more to the ice than just the goals, but hopefully I will score the goals next year, too."

I believe I bring a lot more to the ice than just the goals, but hopefully I will score the goals next year, too. - Niklas Hagman
The Leafs struck the deal with Hagman while he was at his paternal grandfather's 84th birthday party. Also at the party was Hagman's father, Matti, who played 237 games in the NHL and is regarded as one of Finland's legendary hockey stars.

"For a long time he was the guy who had the most points in the Finnish League," Niklas Hagman said of his father, who played for both the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers. "He was the Wayne Gretzky of the Finnish League. Nobody was really close."

Niklas, though, had to eventually leave the party because his cell phone was constantly ringing. His agent, Don Baizley, was letting him know of numerous offers coming in, but Hagman said it was the conversation he had with Leafs coach Ron Wilson and interim GM Cliff Fletcher that helped make his decision a bit easier.

"It was obviously nice to hear from three or four teams right from the start, but I made up my mind," Hagman said. "I spoke with the coach and GM and they gave the impression that they really wanted me and I really wanted to go to a team that really wanted me. I believe good things will come, and I hope I can be a part of it."

Toskala helped by giving Hagman an idea of what kind of coach Wilson is. Toskala used to play for Wilson in San Jose.

"He said he really liked him and that he was a good coach," Hagman said. "It was something I wanted to hear from someone that used to play for him. He also told me something that I new before and everybody else knows, but Toronto is a really nice city and hockey is really big. I love playing hockey, so what better place to be than some place where people really love hockey."

Hagman said the idea that Leafs captain Mats Sundin may not return to the organization never once factored into his decision. If Sundin chooses not to sign elsewhere, Hagman's goal scoring will become that much more essential for the Leafs.

"Even though I'm a Finn and I don't like Swedes, we get along," Hagman joked. "To be honest, I don't even know what is going on over there other than what I read on the Internet. I wouldn't say it had any impact on my decision."

Where the Leafs use Hagman remains to be seen, and it may have a lot to do with what Sundin eventually decides.

If Sundin doesn't return, there is a chance Wilson could have Nik Antropov center the top line with Hagman on his left wing. Wilson, though, said he also sees the possibility of Hagman playing with Jamal Mayers, a winger the Leafs acquired in a trade with St. Louis at the draft last month.

"We're trying to put together an energy line, a grind line type thing," Wilson said. "That's why we got Jamal Mayers at the draft and I think Hagman can fit in there. Playing in a really tough conference he played 27 goals for Dallas and he didn't play a lot on the power play. He doesn't shy away from traffic."

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