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Hagman enjoying another career year in Dallas

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It isn’t just that Dallas Stars winger Niklas Hagman has been red-hot lately, scoring four goals and seven points in the last four games, it’s the way in which he’s been putting the puck in the net that is so impressive.

Thursday night in San Jose, Hagman accelerated through the Sharks defense, received a nice pass from Loui Eriksson, went in on a breakaway and beat goaltender Evgeni Nabokov between the pads with a quick wrist shot. 

Then Sunday afternoon he outraced Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer to take a feed from Stu Barnes and go in alone on Duck netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere, launching a wrist shot over Giguere’s shoulder for a shorthanded goal that turned out to be the game-winner in a 5-2 Stars victory. 

An empty netter in the final minutes Sunday gave Hagman a new career-high of 18 goals in this season’s first 51 games, surpassing the 17 he needed all of last year to amass. His blazing speed and ability to finish against the best goalies in the league have been a hallmark of his game.

“Those wheels he has, he creates a lot with his speed,” Stars captain Brenden Morrow said. “He outskated Scott Niedermayer, so that shows how much speed he has.”

“He’s a guy that creates opportunities with his speed,” Dallas coach Dave Tippett echoed. “If you look at the goal the other night in San Jose and that one (Sunday), both goals, he wins races. His speed is accentuated when you look at, the other night he’s racing (Patrick) Marleau, not a slow guy and tonight he’s racing Niedermayer, not a slow guy. So that just shows you, speed is one of his biggest assets, he used that to his advantage, Barnesie makes a great play to him and he scores, he finished it off. He’s found that knack this year.”

Indeed he has, as Hagman has upgraded his performance in virtually every aspect in 2007-08, the most obvious being his offensive production. In addition to his new personal-best goal total, Hagman has also accumulated 28 points, one shy of the high of 29 he collected last year. 

The key is that Hagman has been cashing in on his opportunities more often this season, knocking home his 18 goals on a total of 97 shots on goal, for a stellar shooting percentage of 18.6 percent, which puts him among the NHL’s top 15. After connecting on 17 of the 152 shots he fired last season for an 11.2 percent shooting efficiency, he has significantly improved that figure this year.

“He’s found a way to capitalize on his chances,” Tippett said. “A lot of the chances he gets are very good chances, breakaways or he finds himself in alone, and the one thing that he does is, he capitalizes. A lot of guys get breakaways, but he’s found a way to put the breakaways in, and that’s led to a very good start by him.”

“I think earlier, he has had those same chances, but this year, he has just capitalized on those,” added fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen, a frequent linemate both this year and last. “Maybe he has a little more poise to his game and he has a little more maturity and experience.”

Sunday’s goal was Hagman’s fourth while shorthanded, tying him for third in the entire NHL and matching the total of four he’d recorded in 399 career games prior to this season. Hagman has also displayed a knack for coming through in the clutch, as that goal marked his fifth game-winner this year, tied for fifth in the league - and that doesn’t include one shootout winner.

“I’ve tried that for my whole career, to score goals, it’s not something new that I’m trying to do,” Hagman noted. “Now it just feels that it’s clicking a little more.”

On a club with several key offensive players out of the lineup with injuries lately, Hagman’s offensive contributions have been crucial to the Stars’ recent success. 

“I think he’s been really good for us, he’s got so much speed, he’s hard to defend in practice,” defenseman Stephane Robidas said. “He’s pretty skilled and he’s really quick and I think he’s got some good moves when he gets in front of the goalie. Everybody steps up and he’s one of them.” 

While increasing his offense, the 28-year-old former third-round Florida draft choice (number 70 overall) in 1999 has continued his outstanding defensive play and remains a key penalty killer on a unit that has held the NHL’s top spot for past month.

“We started playing a little bit together last year, he’s a great guy to be out there with,” noted Barnes, Hagman’s usual penalty killing partner. “He’s got a lot of speed, he’s very strong on his skates, he’s strong on the puck, he’s very good defensively, but he’s got that ability to burst out and get-away speed that he can get loose and score some goals. The other teams have to be aware of him going on breakaways.”

Hagman seems to be infused with more confidence this year, as he has pounced on opportunities immediately instead of being tentative, and his seemingly new-found offensive successes have only bolstered it further.

“He’s more willing to go where his natural instincts would lead him and I think both penalty killing and 5-on-5, that’s given him a little more dimension to his game,” said associate coach Rick Wilson, who’s in charge of the PK unit. “I think he’s executed when he’s had opportunities, and that builds confidence. And now you’re, like any player, more willing to try a few more things, and confidence is sort of like a cycle. His 5-on-5 play has been creative. I think last year, we had him more in a role of a two-way, almost defensive-orientated. This year, he’s had opportunities to be up with what would be perceived as offensive opportunity roles, and he’s kind of relishing that, and he’s grabbing it.”

“I would say that confidence is a big factor,” Hagman confirmed. “Now that I get a chance to go on a power play, or get a breakaway, or get a good chance, you have the mentality that you’re going to put it in, not, ‘Hopefully, I get a good shot off and hopefully, it’s going to go in.’ I’ve always known that I can score goals, and that if I get quality chances, that I know how to beat the goalie. It doesn’t work every time, it’s not that easy, but I know that I can score, so that, I would say, is the biggest factor.”

But as much his offensive eruption this year has been welcomed by the club, it’s not necessarily that surprising. After all, the 6-foot, 205-pound Hagman has been a top scorer at every level of hockey before reaching the NHL with Florida in 2001-02.

Hagman collected a league-leading 28 goals and 46 points (ranking second) in 56 games for Karpat Oulu in Finland in 2000-01 and has starred on numerous Finnish national team squads, including in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics (winning a silver medal in Turin), not to mention the 1998 World Junior Championships team, when Hagman scored the winning goal in overtime of the gold medal contest. 

“For me, it’s always been a privilege to represent my country,” Hagman said. “I’ve played four or five World Championships, two Olympics, World Cup - out of those, I would say the best and the worst has been the Olympics, losing in the final. We also lost in the World Cup final against Canada (in 2004). For a small country like ours, as Team Finland, we always play as a team and that’s our strength. 

“Also the World Juniors, we won in ‘98 in Helsinki and I managed to score the overtime goal in the final game, so that’s pretty sweet, too. Olympics and World Juniors, it’s not on the same scale, but when you’re 18-19, the World Juniors is the biggest thing, but when you get a chance to play in the Olympics, the whole atmosphere is different.”

Hagman pointed to that dramatic game-winner in ‘98, in front of the home fans, as one of his defining moments and as the time when he finally emerged from the large shadow cast by his father, one of Finland’s greatest all-time players.

Matti Hagman was the first Finn ever to play in the NHL when he joined Boston in 1976-77, and after playing just four years in North America, including two for the Edmonton Oilers alongside such young stars as future Hall-of-Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Finland’s own Jari Kurri, the Hagmans returned to Finland in 1982.

While Niklas was too young to remember being in North America, he has heard all the stories.

“I think I was only like one (year old) when my dad played in Edmonton,” Hagman said. “My mom always jokes that people always ask me about my idols and then my mom said that Kurri and Gretzky, they were like 18-19-20-year-old kids and they used to babysit me. My dad played with Messier in his rookie year, so it was funny when I played against Messier in Madison Square Garden (a couple of seasons ago). He must have felt old. And I wasn’t like 18 or 19, I was 24 or 25.”

Back in Finland, Matti Hagman starred in the Finnish Elite League throughout the 1980s, establishing records for most assists (51) and points (87) in a single season that still stand today. But Niklas remembers those days for other reasons.

“I can’t remember anything about the games, because we always had our own game going with the other kids,” Hagman said. “When the game was on, there was nobody in the hallways, so we had our goals and our own sticks and a ball and we played. Every time there was cheering, we ran and watched who scored and then came back and kept playing, and after the game, we’d rush to the locker rooms and ask who won. For me, it was fairly obvious that I was going to start playing hockey and that I wanted to be a hockey player, since already, I pretty much grew up in the rink.”

But as the son of a Finnish legend, Hagman shouldered a bit more pressure than the average kid, and it took him a while to shake the label of being Matti Hagman’s son and create his own identity.

“When I was young, you always heard about when maybe I got a little extra ice time, they said  it was because of my dad, and I got on this team because of my dad,” recounted Hagman, who became part of the only Finnish father-son duo to play in the NHL. “It was when the adults are by the rink watching the games, they’re the ones that are kind of yelling, when we went to smaller places in Finland, but when you got older, the parents aren’t there any more, so it kind of faded away a little bit. I would say that the last was when I made the World Juniors and we won and I managed to score the game-winning goal. Then it was, now I’ve achieved something big by myself.”

After his big year with Karpat Oulu in Finland, Hagman arrived with high expectations in Florida for the 2001-02 season. But while Hagman scored 10 goals twice and compiled 28 points as a rookie, he seemed to spin his wheels after a couple of years in the losing culture there, skating for a club that still has not qualified for the playoffs since 2000. 

The Panthers seemed to give up on him, shipping him to Dallas for just a seventh-round draft choice on Dec. 12, 2005 in one of the most lopsided deals in Stars’ history. While Hagman looks back fondly on his three and a half seasons in Florida, he welcomed the change of scenery and the chance to finally play for a winner.

“They gave me a chance to come in the league,” Hagman said of the Panthers. “Maybe after three years, they didn’t feel that I was developing as they planned. It was good for me, too, to get a fresh start somewhere else. It was tough to lose all the time, we didn’t have that good of a team. But it was a good time, I got a lot of friends over there, I enjoyed it a lot, but it was time to move on and I haven’t looked back ever since I got to Dallas. I was happy that I got the chance to go to a winning team, with a lot of Finns. Obviously, they helped me out a lot. Dallas, I’ve always considered one of the powerhouses in the NHL that has a chance to succeed, so it was a big jump-start for my career.”

Hagman has shown gradual improvement ever since, which can be traced by how his average ice time has continually risen, from 12:14 in 2005-06 to 14:25 last season and up to 15:25 so far this year.

“It’s a little bit different playing on the fourth line in Florida and the fourth line in Dallas, like I did at the start,” Hagman said. “I didn’t play that much, but I knew that I’m going to just keep on working and I’m going to get my chance to play a little bit more. It takes time and now I’m just trying to work really hard to get and earn the ice time.”

He has done that, all the while developing into an integral contributor to the Stars’ fortunes, both defensively as a key penalty killer and now as a scoring threat as well. 
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