Carl Hagelin was made for this time of year, and after spending the bulk of his career as a thorn in the side of the Washington Capitals at playoff time, they are now going to be the team benefitting from the unique brand of chaos he can create.
So far, he has been just what they needed in their quest to defend their title.
The Capitals acquired Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings just before the NHL trade deadline in exchange for two mid-round draft picks in a trade that was probably easy to miss because, at the time, Hagelin had recorded just two goals and eight total points in 38 games that he split between the Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins. He was not lighting up the scoreboard, he had missed time due to injury, and it simply wasn’t the type of trade that was going to steal headlines, especially as bigger name players like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and Wayne Simmonds were moving around the league.
Sometimes, though, it can be the smaller trade that ends up making the big difference.
The thing that gets tricky about evaluating Hagelin is that he is not always going to make a huge difference in ways that you easily notice, especially when it comes to his offense. If anything, his play with the puck on his stick will do more to frustrate you than impress you because he is the master of the “create a great scoring chance but never capitalize on it” play.
His speed will cause havoc for opposing defenders, he will find himself on at least one or two breakaways per week, and he will score the occasional goal. But you will always find yourself wanting more and wondering what sort of player he would be if he actually converted on more of the chances he always seems to create.
If he did convert on more of them he would probably be out of the Capitals’ price range under the salary cap because he does everything else so well. That “everything else” is what makes him such a valuable asset to his team this time of year.
There is always more of an emphasis on defensive play this time of year, and shoring up their own defensive play had to be a big priority for the Capitals leading up to the trade deadline. They did address that with the addition of Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings, but defensive play isn’t just about the players that play on the blue line.
Forwards also play a big role in that, and there are few in the NHL that are better without the puck than Hagelin.
He has always been an outstanding possession player and has never had a single season in his career where he finished with a Corsi Percentage lower than 50 percent. Only twice has he finished with a mark lower than 53 percent. He has also been one of the best in the NHL when it comes to shot-suppression and scoring chance differentials.
Some numbers for you to consider.
First, here is where Hagelin ranks among the 510 forwards that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time since the start of the 2016-17 season. He is among the top-10 percent of the league in shot attempt differential (CF%), fewest shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), and scoring chance differential (SC%)…
This season alone he is among the top-50 in all three categories among 348 forwards.
Now let’s look at the penalty kill and his ranks among the 160 forwards that have logged at least 200 PK minutes since the start of the 2016-17 season when it comes to preventing shot attempts, shots on goal and scoring chances, which are all the biggest factors in killing penalties and the best predictor of future penalty killing success.
Again, he is among the most elite forwards in the league.
When you hear about shutdown forwards, this is what you should be envisioning.
His addition has also helped make the Capitals forward lineup far deeper than it was earlier in the season.
Since arriving he has spent a significant portion of his ice-time skating on the third line alongside Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, a trio that has been fairly dominant since they have been assembled. Hagelin alone has already matched (or exceeded) his own individual production from what he did in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, and the line as a whole has been great. In more than 90 minutes the Capitals are controlling more than 62 percent of the total shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, while also outscoring teams by an 8-3 margin.
Compare that to what Eller and Connolly were doing without Hagelin on their wing.
Yes, those are two very different sample sizes in terms of ice-time with and without, and the former is only 90 minutes, so it might be understandable to have some skepticism with these numbers. But Hagelin has had this sort of impact on just about every line he has been a part of over the past few years. You see the impact he has had here, keep in mind that in Pittsburgh Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have had the exact opposite situation play out since Hagelin was traded.
He may not ever finish plays for himself, but he gets to loose pucks, he wins battles, he is always the safe, responsible one that makes the right plays, he is excellent defensively, and his speed causes havoc and creates space for his linemates. All of this adds up.
With Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuzetsov driving the first line, and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie dominating on the second line, the Capitals now have three lines that can hurt their opponents. That is a big part of why they have gone 9-2-1 since the trade deadline and played like one of the best teams in the league since his arrival.
Since the start of the 2013-14 season Hagelin has played in 14 more playoff games than any other player in the NHL, and has always played beyond at least the first round in those seasons, reaching the Stanley Cup Final three times with two different teams. A lot of that is due to having the good fortune of playing on a lot of really good teams that have Hall of Famers. Obviously, he is not the only reason for that success. But it is also not just a coincidence and good fortune, either. He is definitely a part of it. Nearly a quarter of those playoff games he has played during that stretch have come against the Capitals, and he has been a big part of why his team has won three of the four series he has played against them.
Now he might be one of the reasons the Capitals have a chance to advance.
Maybe even against one of the teams he used to torment them with.
(Data via Natural Stat Trick)
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.