By Tom Dougherty, CSNPhilly.com
VOORHEES, N.J. — There’s a forgotten man among the Flyers’ parcel of defensive prospects. Not that Robert Hagg pays any attention to that.
Hagg has a laidback persona to him, perhaps a tad too casual. Talk to him and he’s calm, speaks at a harmonious clip to accompany his Swedish accent. That’s not a knock on his work ethic, more on where he is as a prospect.
The defenseman is coming off his first pro season in North America. He’s still too relaxed with the puck and needs to play with more urgency on a consistent basis, but he has the tools to be an effective NHL player. While he’d love to make the Flyers this year, he knows there may be more opportunity to hone his own game in the AHL.
So what’s another season spent in Allentown?
“You have to see your own development, what’s best for you,” Hagg said last week at the Flyers’ development camp at Skate Zone. “It’s not good for you to sit on the bench and play 12-15 minutes. You want to play a lot. We have that opportunity to do that at Lehigh to play 20-25 minutes. That’s most important.”
Listen closely and Hagg’s sentiments align with those of general manager Ron Hextall, who has final say where Hagg begins the season. Hextall is calculated with his plan, and he’s in no rush to hurry any of his promising prospects, especially with eight defensemen under contract and Michael Del Zotto re-signing soon. He says, “It’s too dangerous.”
“We don’t want a kid playing here at seven, 10 minutes,” Hextall said. “I don’t want a kid sitting out. That’s not going to happen.”
Looking back, Hagg, the Flyers’ 2013 second-round pick, described his first full season with the Phantoms as OK. He admitted he was too inconsistent, which drives coaches crazy. As a young player, that’s expected.
The 20-year-old started strong, registering nine points with two multi-point efforts in his first 15 games. Over his next 13 games, he had just three points but was a plus-1.
“It was up and down,” he said. “It started pretty good and after 20 games, I had a little dip. Ten games, I didn’t feel good at all.”
Then came the World Junior Championships. Hagg played for Team Sweden, who lost to Slovakia in the bronze medal game.
“It was a great experience,” Hagg, who had two assists in seven tournament games, said. “After that, I came back and played the rest of the season. I felt better and better. I felt more comfortable.”
After the eight-game AHL break, Hagg recorded six points and was a minus-11 in his final 41 games at Lehigh Valley. In all, he finished with three goals and 20 points in 69 games, 19 more than he’s played before in a season. (He played in 50 of 55 games in 2013-14 with MODO in the Swedish Elite League.) Nothing spectacular, but he showed glimpses of what he can be if he adds intensity to his game.
“You can learn how to work harder,” former Phantoms head coach Terry Murray told NJ.com in February. “That’s the one thing you can do as a player. And that’s up to us as coaches to get them to play faster, quicker, harder. He has a tendency to be a little casual and it shows. The speed comes to him too quick sometimes.
“He can recognize it a little sooner and give himself an edge by just moving his feet quicker to get to a loose puck. I don’t think he’ll ever become a highly competitive guy like (Claude) Giroux, but if we can get him more intense and maybe take some of that casual play out of his game, I think he’s going to make that step.”
Murray is now an assistant coach in Buffalo. The Flyers on Monday named former Islanders coach Scott Gordon the new head coach at Lehigh Valley, so Gordon will be responsible for working with Hagg, Shayne Gostisbehere and Sam Morin unless one of the three make Hextall change his mind.
For the team’s future, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have Hagg, Gostisbehere and Morin spend time together with the Phantoms. It’ll allow the three to learn each other’s game and develop together so when it’s their time to come up to the Flyers they’re already familiar with one another. Then add Travis Sanheim and Ivan Provorov later.
Though Gostisbehere played in only five games with the Phantoms last season because of a torn ACL, Hagg, who sees himself as a two-way defenseman, likes what he saw in the small sample size.
“He’s a great player to play with,” said the native of Uppsala, Sweden. “You know what you get from him. He’s an offensive defender, and he’s out there, the other team has to respect him, give you — like me — more time and more ice to do the stuff I’m good at.”
This summer, Hagg changed his offseason training and diet and now says he’s lost about five percent of his body fat. He’s heading back to Sweden this week to continue training for camp in September. He plans to return to the area in mid-August. And when he returns to Skate Zone for training camp, he’ll have one thing in mind.
“The only thing we can do,” Hagg said, “is just keep focused on our own development and keep working hard.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: See the story on CSNPhilly.com)