“When the enemy gives you an opening be swift as a hare and
he will be unable to withstand you.”
― Sun Tzu
When last we looked in on Carl Hagelin, he was wrapping up a disappointing postseason in Game 5 of the opening round series against the New York Islanders. No goals, no assists, one shot on goal, two shot attempts, no hits, no takeaways, and he was on ice for the first Islander power play of the game on which the Isles scored, the first goal in a 4-0 series-clinching win. He did this in 9:28 of ice time, his lowest ice time in the playoffs as a Capital and only the sixth time in 136 postseason games that he skated less than ten minutes.
That game, hardly alone in its disappointing performance among Capitals, brought to an end a disappointing postseason for Hagelin, who finished 0-1-1, minus-4, in eight games. In a way, that result might have been expected, given that he finished the 2019 playoffs 0-1-1, minus-1, in seven postseason games. But on another level, it was surprising. Hagelin was hot as a bonfire over the last stretch of the 2019-2020 regular season, going 7-9-16, plus-7, in his last 22 games. But then again, he closed with a rush in the 2018-2019 regular season with the Caps, too (3-8-11, plus-9, in his last 16 games).
Hagelin’s profile from last season is something of the “sampler” menu. He had eight goals and 25 points, decent numbers for a forward getting largely fourth line minutes. Never a great shooter in terms of efficiency, he did post a 7.5 shooting percentage, which was his best since a 7.9 mark in 2015-2016 split between stints in Anaheim and Pittsburgh. His plus-12 rating was his best personal mark since a plus-18 with the New York Rangers in 2014-2015 and was second-best on the team among forwards (Richard Panik: plus-16). Two of his eight goals were game-winners. He averaged 2:55 in shorthanded ice time per game, second on the team and first among forwards. His three shorthanded points (one goal, two assists) tied Nic Dowd for the team lead.
Odd Hagelin Fact… In nine NHL seasons, Carl Hagelin has never finished with a minus rating (his lowest was minus-7 in 2018-2019, combined in stints with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Washington).
Odd Hagelin Fact II… In nine NHL seasons, Carl Hagelin has never recorded a power play assist (he does, however, have two power play goals).
Skill can be enhanced and used effectively with coaching. Hard work can be nurtured by coaching. But speed? For the most part, a skater brings that to the table. Carl Hagelin remains one of the fastest skaters in the league, and he seems to take pride in his defensive skiils, a combination of attributes that Caps fans hope will continue to make him a formidable penalty killer. The Caps have a lot of skill and talent in the offensive end of the ice, among both the forwards and defensemen. But a team with Stanley Cup aspirations cannot leave the other end of the ice to indifference, and this is where Hagelin will continue to be valuable.
Speed on skates has a shelf life cuz, just like a pitcher’s 98-mile and hour fast ball or a wide receiver’s 4.1 40-yard dash time. Hagelin turned 32 in August. How much high-octane speed does he have left in his tank? Being 32 isn’t a “best-used-by” date, but he is just another one of several Capitals who bear close watching this season for cracks in the best parts of his game. Not being an especially efficient offensive player, whatever cracks he develops will be magnified.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:
- 300 career points (he currently has 266)
- 10,000 career minutes played (9,337)
- 100 games played as a Capital (78)
The Big Question… Carl Hagelin has had fast finishes the last two regular seasons, but can he put together a fast start?
Last season, Carl Hagelin started the year without a goal in his first 27 games (on 39 shots). He had one in his first 36 games (on 58 shots – 1.7 percent). In 2018-2019 he started the sea with one goal in his first 26 games (on 43 shots – 2.3 percent). See a pattern? In a 56-game season, a start like this just is not going to be conducive to team success. On the other hand, if you look at things from a slightly different angle, they are not quite as bad. In games after January 13th (the start date for this coming season), he had four goals in 33 games in 2018-2019, and last season he had seven goals in 23 games starting on January 13th.
In the end…
In evaluating bottom six forwards, be mindful of expectations and criteria for success. A bottom six forward should not be evaluated on (or at least only) their offensive contributions. Getting timely contributions are important contributors to team success, but the word “prolific” is not going to be attached to their scouting report insofar as their goal scoring or playmaking is concerned. The bottom six forward needs to have a varied range of skills or needs to be especially adept at skills that the casual fan might not immediately appreciate.
Carl Hagelin is primarily a defensive specialist with penalty killing skills, able to make opponents pay for a weak or lackadaisical moment on their power play. He has breakaway speed that can stretch a defense or keep them honest in not getting too deep in the offensive zone. He is not, and never has been a 20-goal scorer (17 is his high), he is not a 40-point player (39 is his career-best). He does not get power play time. But he does provide timely contributions (26 of his 101 career goals are game-winners), and he does have the kind off game that provides a certain balance with the more offensively-gifted members of the roster. And is not as if he was a stiff last season, despite the slow start. His 2019-2020 scoring line was 11-24-35, plus-17, on an 82-game basis. Hagelin’s ability produce in such fashion, not to mention have a better start than he has had the past two seasons, is going to be an important factor in what success the Caps have this season.
Projection: 55 games, 7-15-22, plus-10
Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images