A lot of the guys in the Pens locker room are very familiar with Carl Hagelin – who was acquired from Anaheim for David Perron and Adam Clendening early Saturday morning – as he spent the first four seasons of his career with the New York Rangers before getting traded to the Ducks this past summer.
The Penguins are the team Hagelin has played the most games against in his career, as he’s dressed for 20 regular and 12 postseason games against Pittsburgh – with all of those playoff contests coming the last two seasons.
In 2014, the Rangers eliminated the Penguins in five games in the Second Round. And last year, the series-clinching overtime winner came off the stick of Hagelin in Game 5 of their First Round matchup – a goal Marc-Andre Fleury remembers very well.
“It’ll be nice to see him practice a little bit, and stop him,” Fleury said with a laugh. “No, it’ll be good though. He’s a good player. He’s a fast player. He’s got some skills. We’ve seen him play a lot over the years.”
For one Pen in particular, their history with the Swedish winger goes even further back.
Ian Cole battled against Hagelin for three seasons when the defenseman was at the University of Notre Dame and the forward was at the University of Michigan. They were matchups Cole did not look forward to, especially because of a certain play the Wolverines would run to take full advantage of Hagelin’s blazing speed.
“Michigan always had this thing where they threw pucks off the wide boards and just flew the wide side,” Cole explained. “A lot of teams in the NHL now come across that strong side and try to push the D back.
"Well, with Michigan, one of their things is they would leave their weak-side winger really wide and he would just fly. They would go D to D, he would whip up the boards and they’d just rip it cross-ice off the boards behind him and Hagelin’s just gone. Every time on the breakout, I’m looking, trying to find Hagelin like, ‘where is he?’”
Pair that with Hagelin’s playoff performance last year, and needless to say, Cole is certainly looking forward to getting him the puck instead of trying to take it away from him.
“I think if we can dial in that wide play they were using at Michigan, I think that would be huge,” he smiled. “But no, it’s great. It’s awesome. He’s a really good player. We lost a couple really good guys but we’re excited to get him and move forward.”
COUNTRYMEN While some of the Pens don’t necessarily have the fondest memories of Hagelin from their battles over the years, they’re definitely looking forward to having him on their team – Patric Hornqvist in particular.
Hornqvist and Hagelin began training together three summers ago in their native Sweden and have developed a close relationship. The two of them just are a year apart – Hornqvist is 28, Hagelin 27 – and have played on a couple of international teams together as well.
“We really clicked right away,” Hornqvist said. “Good guy, good player, really good friend of mine. It’ll be fun to see him come in this room and help us here down the road.”
Hornqvist said he has already spoken with Hagelin, who is flying from California to Pittsburgh today.
“I texted him and he’s all excited to come here,” Hornqvist said. “Obviously he scored that OT winner last year in the playoffs. He knows this team really well so he’s excited to come and help us out here down the road.”
Forward Kevin Porter was a senior at the University of Michigan when Hagelin was a freshman, part of a 12-player class that also included current Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty.
Porter joked that Hagelin – at least back then – was much quieter than the energetic, outgoing Hornqvist, who laughed when I told him that.
“We might be the opposite of each other but that’s probably why we’re good friends,” Hornqvist grinned. “We can help each other out and all that. He will fit this room really well. He’s got some speed and kills penalties and he takes pucks to the net and always works hard, so that would be a good fit for us.”
When I asked if he felt Hagelin was one of the NHL’s fastest guys, Hornqvist agreed.
“I think so,” he said. “Him and Tanger. I would love seeing them out there (to) see who’s faster. That’d be good for ‘Geno’ to play with a fast guy on the wing there. He can create a lot of open ice for Geno and Phil. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
COACH’S PERSPECTIVE The familiarity with Hagelin extends behind the bench as well, as Pens head coach Mike Sullivan spent two seasons with him in New York when he was an assistant there under John Tortorella. That speed is what stands out to Sullivan the most when talking about what Hagelin brings.
“He can really skate,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a real good guy. I had him in New York for a couple of seasons and I think he’s going to make us faster. I think he’s versatile, he can play up and down the lineup. He’s a good penalty killer, and he can bring a lot to the team. Right off the bat he brings an element of speed that will bring our team speed to another level.”
“He’s got speed. That’s probably the biggest thing that sticks out for me from playing against him,” Sidney Crosby agreed. “He generates a lot with his speed and from playing him in New York, he always seemed to get a breakaway or find himself alone a lot. The game is fast now, that’s the way it’s played. So I’m sure he’ll help a lot.”
In terms of where he will slot in, Sullivan said Hagelin will likely start at left wing alongside Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel for Sunday’s game against Carolina.
“I think he’s going to track pucks down and help them keep it longer,” Sullivan said when I asked how his speed could complement those two. “He’ll put teams in vulnerable circumstances, and he’s got good enough hockey sense that he can play with other guys at that level. He’s a real great player and a great person, so I think he’ll fit in real well.”
LETANG GAME-TIME Kris Letang was not on the ice for the Pens’ Saturday afternoon practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, and Sullivan said he will be a game-time decision for Sunday.
“’Tanger’ was being evaluated today,” Sullivan said. “We haven't gotten any definitive results, so right now he’ll be a game-time decision for tomorrow.”
Letang was in pain after being checked into the end boards by Ryan Callahan at the end of the second period of Friday’s 5-4 overtime loss in Tampa Bay. He was late returning to the bench for the third period as he was getting an X-ray, but finished out the game.
“A lot of pain, but checked with the doctors to make sure I was not putting myself at risk,” Letang said afterward. “We’ll get further tests on it.”