How Brandon Hagel Strengthens Tampa Bay Lightning’s Bottom Six
There’s no denying the physical wear and tear and mental fatigue that accompany back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. The playoffs are an absolute war, so running the gauntlet in consecutive seasons will take a lot out of any team.
However, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s quest for a three-peat is roster attrition. Head coach Jon Cooper heavily relied on his third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow. Not only did they absorb the toughest matchups—thereby freeing Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov to run roughshod over the opposition—but they set the tone each and every night. If you couldn’t match their pace and urgency, you were in for an unpleasant ride.
All three forwards left over the offseason, sapping the Lightning’s depth in one fell swoop. A third line anchored by Ross Colton doesn’t strike fear in anyone’s heart.
General manager Julien BriseBois reached the same conclusion and sprung to action at the trade deadline in order to bolster his bottom six. First, he acquired 23-year-old winger Brandon Hagel and two fourth-round picks from the Chicago Blackhawks for two first-rounders, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh. Then he swapped Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-rounder for Nick Paul (44.5% retained). If you couldn’t tell from the cost, Hagel is the real prize here. Though his frame doesn’t compare to Goodrow’s (5’11”, 174 lbs vs. 6’2”, 204 lbs) and he doesn’t play exactly like Coleman or Gourde, he does share their tenacity around the puck:
He’s simply relentless whenever the action is near him, contesting every possession with his active stick and work rate. He does make the occasional savvy defensive read too, although his effectiveness is more predicated on his energy than his hockey IQ. Frankly, there’s no telling how Hagel would fare in a matchup role. He wasn’t really deployed in that capacity as a Blackhawk and Chicago’s structure doesn’t hold a candle to Tampa Bay’s.
Fortunately, he’s a versatile winger who’s joined a versatile forward corps. If Cooper wishes to keep significant three-zone responsibilities away from Point and Steven Stamkos, he could move his captain back to the middle of the ice and bump Anthony Cirelli (a legitimate Selke Trophy candidate) down to the third unit. The Lightning could also split up Point and Kucherov, as Cooper has done of late, in an effort to overwhelm the opposition with a more balanced attack. There is no shortage of options on the table.
At any rate, Hagel brings a determination and nose for the puck that could help any line. Among the 264 forwards who have logged at least 600 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, he ranks 22nd in takeaways.
And his motor runs just as hot on offense:
While Hagel may not offer shutdown hockey, he’s an excellent forechecker who can ensure that the Lightning stay on the attack for as long as possible. He launches himself into the corners and hounds defensemen as though his career depends on it. Better yet, in the heat of battle, he has the awareness to recognize when to gain an advantage with his body or his stick.
During these altercations, you get the sense that he’s a natural. He’s built for these head-to-head clashes because he wants it more than others do. That’s why his poor underlying numbers as a member of the Blackhawks aren’t overly concerning. He’s a heart-and-soul player whose pace and proficiency in the trenches will allow the Lightning to impose their preferred tempo. He doesn’t dictate the action, but he delivers postseason intensity.
It doesn’t hurt that the second-year winger is enjoying a breakout campaign on the scoresheet either (37 points in 55 games). Though he looks like a whirling dervish along the wall, he’s an underrated playmaker in space:
He demonstrates a good feel for where the open lanes are, he has soft touch on his saucer attempts and he’s more than happy to pass up a shot in favor of a better opportunity. With that said, he does get carried away at times and will try low-percentage dishes when a simpler choice is available. Clearly defining his role through coaching should iron out those kinks.
At his best, Hagel isn’t thinking too much. He’s skating fast, working hard and funneling play toward the opposition’s front door. That quality is reflected in his goal scoring, which has taken a massive leap in 2021-22.
Sure, he isn’t going to maintain a 22.3 shooting percentage, but he gives himself the best odds possible by alternating between rush and net-front chances:
Notice how the puck is seldom on his stick for very long. Though he’s capable of pulling off flashy sequences now and again, he’s most dangerous as a catch-and-release shooter and a cleanup man who seeks out deflections and rebounds. That should play nicely with a Tampa Bay squad that isn’t lacking play-drivers and could use a dose of heaviness in the slot.
Hagel debuted for the Lightning on March 19 alongside Colton. It looks as though Paul will join them for now. But if Cooper grows dissatisfied with that setup, Hagel provides him with the flexibility to tinker with the lineup. He can hang with more talented forwards or bring the grit and wheels that the bottom six needs. Meanwhile, Cirelli, Ondrej Palat or Alex Killorn can drop down to deliver more experience and positional stability. The possibilities are endless.
At the end of the day, his arrival immediately strengthens Tampa Bay’s bottom six—whether he’s in it or not. Oh, and let’s not forget that he’s signed for another two years at a $1.5 million cap hit.
Even after two straight titles, this organization remains as hungry as ever to win.