One of the brightest spots in an up-and-down first month of the season for the Dallas Stars has been the impressive offensive contributions delivered by left wing Niklas Hagman.
After what most observers regarded as a breakthrough season last year when he established career highs with 17 goals and 29 points, Hagman has gotten off to a blazing start in 2007-08, piling up a team-leading seven goals and nine points in the first 13 games.
Included in the goal total is an NHL-best three shorthanded goals, single-handedly matching the number of shorthanders that the entire Stars club scored all of last season. He also leads the entire league with three game-winning goals, a statistic which means even more when you realize that the Stars currently have five victories (5-6-2).
Blessed with excellent speed, good vision and a gritty, abrasive style that helps make him an outstanding penalty killer, the 6-foot, 205-pound Finn is a valuable member of the Stars even without providing offense, but lately, for a team that has struggled at times to score goals, his production has been extremely vital to the Stars’ fortunes.
“I’ve always known that I can score goals, and that if I get quality chances, that I know how to beat the goalie,” Hagman said. “It doesn’t work every time, it’s not that easy, but I know that I can score, so I would say that confidence is a big factor. 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.’ Now, when I get a chance, I tend to think what I’m going to do, and how I’m going to put it in, rather than just getting off a shot.”
“He’s found a way to capitalize on his chances,” Stars coach Dave 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.”
At least two of Hagman’s goals have come on breakaways (both shorthanded), as he uses his speed to pull away from defenders chasing him and he has shown impressive poise and slick moves to finish them. But Hagman says don’t expect to see him in a shootout lineup any time soon.
“Usually, if I have too much time, I tend to (over think it), so I like when it comes fast and maybe (a defenseman) is right on you,” Hagman admitted. “The D helps you, too, when he hooks you or something, you lose balance and then you manage to get it back and it fakes the goalie, too. Our shootout guys are so tremendous, they tend to work, so I’m not even worried about that.”
While Tippett might not insert Hagman into the shootout rotation that includes Jussi Jokinen, Sergei Zubov and Mike Ribeiro
, he is very happy with how Hagman has become an offensive threat while killing penalties.
“We had three last year and we’re at three right now, so that’s a good sign,” Tippett said of the club’s shorthanded goal tally. “That’s something we talked about early in the year, that’s something that we thought we could improve on that stat from last year.”
“Obviously, we try to bring a little more offense everywhere, and that’s one of the areas,” added Hagman, who had all of four shorthanded goals in 399 career games entering this season. “You just got to be smart.”
One of the keys to Hagman’s increased scoring rate this year is the fact that he’s burying his chances more. He’s always seemed to generate offensive opportunities, especially last season when his 17 goals (surpassing his previous personal best of 10) came while firing a career-high 152 shots on goal.
That works out to a shooting percentage of 11.2 percent. This year, he’s taken 27 shots to score his seven goals, for a 25.9 percent success rate. That tells the story of his increased production right there.
“I think earlier, he has had those same chances, but this year, he has just capitalized on those,”said Jokinen, a frequent linemate this season and last. “Maybe he has little more poise to his game and he has a little more maturity and experience.”
“I think it’s him getting the opportunities,” Tippett said of Hagman’s improved production. “He’s finding the opportunities that give him the chance to score and he’s a pretty skilled player, he’s got pretty good hands in tight. He’s found a way to score goals.”
Another factor in Hagman’s fast start this year is that he’s been getting more ice time. Hagman has averaged 15:40 per game this season, up from 14:25 last season and 12:14 in 2005-06. Included in the increase is time on the power play, where he’s scored twice this year.
He’s clearly earning that extra ice time with his performance, but there’s no question that additional time on the ice has been beneficial for him, and perhaps has also helped his confidence, which in turn further feeds into better play.
“The points come with lots of ice time,” Jokinen noted. “If you play 10-11 minutes, it’s so difficult to put some points on the scoreboard, because all those breaks, but he’s playing power play, penalty killing, even strength. I was able to help him last year get that career-high 17 goals, and he has to keep building on that, and he has the last year of his contract, so it’s going to be a big year for him. He’s doing good.”
As much as Hagman’s offensive eruption this year has been welcomed by the club, it’s not necessarily that surprising. After all, Hagman has been a top scorer at every level of hockey before reaching the NHL with Florida in 2001-02.
“I knew him a little bit when he played back in Finland,” Jokinen said. “World Junior Championships, when (Finland) won gold in ’98, he was I think top goal-scorer in the tournament, and he played on same Finnish team as me just before he left there in 2000-01 and he scored something like 28 goals, and in the 2003 World Championships, he was MVP there, so he certainly has the ability to put the puck in the net.”
Jokinen knows his stats - 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). During the NHL lockout in 2004-05, Hagman skated for HC Davos in Switzerland, netting 17 goals and 39 points in 44 regular season contests and another 10 goals and 17 points in 15 playoff games on the way to a league championship.
Now, he’s starting to find that confidence and offensive comfort zone in his sixth NHL season.
“Obviously, I’ve tried that for my whole career, trying to score goals,” Hagman said. “It’s not something new that I’m trying to do, I’ve been trying to do it the whole time. Now it just feels that it’s clicking a little more. Maybe a couple of breakaways I’ve had, I’ve managed to put them in. Sometimes it goes in and sometimes it doesn’t.”
One last intangible that has improved Hagman’s quality of life lately has nothing at all to do with hockey. The arrival of his son Lukas, now eight months old, has made a big difference in his overall demeanor.
“I would say that I’ve been overall a lot happier the past eight months, so maybe that’s a factor, too,” Hagman said. “Even the bad days don’t feel that bad when you go home with the little guy, so I hope that has helped too.”
Hagman hasn’t had too many of those this season, although he was a little concerned about his -7 plus/minus rating.
“It’s not good,” he said. “I would say that a couple of those minuses have been bad bounces, but it’s something that I got to do something about it. I just try to keep scoring goals and try to play better defensively, don’t get those minuses, so it’s a little bit of mixed feelings.”
Ultimately, the Stars are less concerned with why Hagman has been playing so well this season, they just hope he can keep it up. They needed an unexpected source of offense and so far Hagman has provided it.