2017-18 Player Review: Robert Hagg’s rookie year was hit or miss

2013 second-round pick saw first extensive NHL action this year following three seasons in the AHL with the Phantoms.

On How I Met Your Mother there’s a little line that that goes something like, “Have ya met Ted?” It’s a quasi pick-up line used several times as the protagonist searches almost endlessly for the love of his life throughout the course of the show.

But around the Flyers, the line goes something a little more like, “Have ya met rookie hits leader Robert Hagg?” If you watched the Flyers at least a handful of times this year, you probably heard that several times.

The best word to describe Hagg’s rookie season with the Flyers: physical. Hagg led all NHL rookies with 238 hits and ended eighth overall in the entire league. He didn’t provide much offense with three goals and six assists, but that was to be expected give he had 26 points in the past two seasons in the AHL with the Phantoms. Hagg was, however, solid in his own zone and a regular contributor on the penalty kill for coach Dave Hakstol in 2017-18.

Hagg isn’t super hard to evaluate coming off his rookie season, and while there are some things to like, there are also some red flags of note going forward. Nevertheless, the Flyers will look to ink Hagg to a short-term contract to keep him in the fold. Something within the three-year range feels right for both parties, and we’d expect it to get done sooner rather than later.

By The Numbers

As noted above, Hagg isn’t on the roster to produce points from the blue line like Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere. He’s on the team because he’s big, physical, mobile, kills penalties, and is generally reliable in his own zone. Hagg will never possess much offensive upside, but he can still be a key cog on the defense if he does other things well.

That includes controlling play in his own zone, suppressing chances and goals. These were metrics for which Hagg did not post good marks in this past season. His -5.73 Corsi Relative was by far the worst of any defenseman on the roster and his -3.02 xG was also worst if you exclude Johnny Oduya. Hagg’s possession metrics were pretty concretely bad across the board, but somehow despite his low expected goals rate he was actually on ice for four more goals at 5-on-5 than he allowed (52.27%).

Now given Hagg’s high defensive zone start percentage (59%) in his rookie year, some of these numbers are likely a tad inflated. But that said, Hagg doesn’t project as a top pair defenseman and doesn’t provide enough value in the offensive zone to warrant many more favorable zone starts at this point in time —at least at even strength.

The hope is that Hagg will progress and grow a little bit offensively and post possession metrics closer to his teammates in time. What could also help would be a defense partner other than Andrew MacDonald.

Hagg spent his rookie season almost exclusively saddled to MacDonald as a partner, and the results weren’t great. The pair posted poor Corsi numbers in addition to poor goal-based numbers. Away from MacDonald, Hagg’s Corsi numbers weren’t much different, but he was a +5 in goal differential at 5-on-5 versus the -3 he was with MacDonald.

Perhaps next year Hagg could find himself with a different partner and find better results across the board. Given that puck moving isn’t his strong suit, a fit with Travis Sanheim could be intriguing though it would seem a long shot as both players would be in their second year and Hakstol has generally favored keeping the youth separated on defense.


Three Burning Questions

1. Did this player live up to our expectations for this season?

Given the usual struggles of a rookie defenseman at the NHL level, I think it’s fair to say that Hagg was pretty on par for what we expected out of him. We knew he wasn’t going to score a ton and that there would be growing pains, but overall he was fine, if unspectacular, and that’s okay.

It should also be noted that while some of his metrics can be attributed to poor usage – as most can with Hakstol – it can’t be ignored that he didn’t help force play when he was on the ice at any time. The Flyers were out-shot and out-chanced when he was on the ice, but did come out on top in terms of goal differential, which is the only thing that really matters in the end. The problem is that his underlying numbers suggest that trend won’t continue and he’ll eventually pay for being out-shot and out-chanced on a consistent basis.

2. What do we expect from this player next season?

Hagg should make the team and is likely competing with Travis Sanheim and Christian Folin for a regular spot in the lineup. Folin is though to be the seventh defenseman after that role flip-flopped between several guys a season ago, but he could push Hagg if the second-year pro doesn’t have a good camp and preseason.

We can expect more of the same from Hagg next year in terms of his all-around role and production. He’s never going to have a high offensive ceiling and profiles as a second pair defenseman at best going forward, given that he’s not the type of puck mover you generally see on good teams’ top two pairs. But he can eat up time on third pair and on the penalty kill, isn’t going to cost a ton of money, and there are far worse options out there to be sure.

3. What would we like to see this player improve on?

The thing with Hagg is that he doesn’t really do anything super well. Nothing in his game stands out besides his physical nature, which was somewhat of a surprise from his rookie season. Physicality is still important to a degree, but it’s not as valuable as it once was in the NHL and defensemen nowadays —the good ones at least— are multi-faceted and impact the game in all three zones, not just their own.

That’s the struggle with pegging Hagg going forward is that he doesn’t look like he’s ever going to provide much offense. Since he doesn’t have a rocket shot like Gostisbehere or the instincts of Travis Sanheim or Ivan Provorov, I’d like to see him work on his passing and puck skills to the point where he can hold his own consistently. Breakouts are such a massive part of the NHL today and having a defenseman that struggles in that area is a huge problem.

If Hagg can solidify that part of his game he can mold himself into the image of some other defenseman who didn’t have elite offensive games either; guys like Dan Hamhuis, Marc Methot, Brooks Orpik, and Niklas Hjalmarsson all carved out nice careers as more stay-at-home defenders that didn’t light it up offensively but could move the puck well enough to help create offense for their clubs from the back end.

He’s got work left to do, but he’s young enough at 23 to get that work in and become a staple in the Flyers organization.

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