One of the greatest benefits of living in a free country is that every person has been endowed with certain inalienable rights and freedoms. Specifically, the right to a fair trial and to defend oneself in a court of law. No matter how guilty someone appears to be based on the evidence, it is important that the evidence be presented publicly so that a judge and a jury can interpret that evidence and decide on the verdict.
It reminded me of the infamous O. J. Simpson trial of the 1990’s and how well the series American Crime Story: The People Vs. O. J. Simpson portrayed the people and events of the “Trial of the Century”. The case captivated audiences internationally and brought strong opinions about the innocence or guilt of O. J. Simpson in the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Ultimately, despite public opinion and strong evidence indicating guilt, O. J. Simpson was found not guilty because the prosecution team could not prove that O. J. was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
Which leads me to wonder about Robert Hagg. The much maligned defenceman of the Philadelphia Flyers is clearly unpopular among Flyer fans. Fans in the court of public opinion (aka Flyers Twitter) have made it clear that Hagg is now the least popular player on the roster with the buyout of Andrew MacDonald earlier this summer. They have a point. Whether you used advanced stats or the eye test, Hagg had a disappointing season from a defensive standpoint. He blew too many coverages in the defensive zone, gave the puck away at inopportune times, had difficulty efficiently making zone exits, and just generally looked out of position far too often.
While the evidence strongly indicates that Robert Hagg is not a very good NHL defenceman, does it prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? Does he legitimately deserve this characterization that he has been given or is it more the result of a frustrated and disenchanted fanbase needing to appoint someone as the target for their blame and disappointment with the Flyers?
I cannot believe that I am saying this, but I feel that someone has to defend Robert Hagg. And I am taking the case pro bono.
So let me be clear right off the top: I firmly believe that Robert Hagg is currently the worst defenceman on the Philadelphia Flyers and that he was the worst defenceman on the team last year. Lets take a look at his career thus far after being a 2nd round draft pick (41st overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft:
ROBERT HAGG – Adirondack Phantoms/Lehigh Valley Phantoms (AHL)
ROBERT HAGG – Philadelphia Flyers (NHL)
The first thing that strikes me is that Hagg struggled once he became a regular player for the Phantoms after coming over from Sweden. Seasons two and three show that he was a minus player, and that the decline actually got worse in year three. His shots and overall points decreased between years two and three even though his goals actually increased with less shots over almost the same amount of games. This indicates the normal struggles that many European defenceman have to face when attempting to adapt to the smaller North American ice surface and the increased pace of the AHL compared to the European game. Hagg eventually turned things around in his fourth season with Lehigh Valley, becoming a plus player while being relied on to play a larger role on the defence. This led to his promotion to the big club for the start of the 2017-2018 season.
With the Flyers, Hagg enjoyed an unspectacularly pedestrian rookie season registering only 9 points while trying to adjust to the increased pace and flow of the NHL game. The highlight of his rookie season was his 238 hits, which registered him among the league leaders in the NHL and became the main talking point for broadcasters and color commentators throughout the league.
This past season was a completely different story. While he more than doubled his point production (from 9 to 20 points) from his rookie season, Hagg’s defensive game struggled. His ice time also noticeably dipped in his second season to averaging a mere 16:57 per game (down 1:11 per game). This shows that other defencemen were trusted with more minutes at Hagg’s expense as the season went on (ie. Sanheim and Myers) and that in that diminished time on the ice Hagg accounted for three more giveaways and four less takeaways than the previous season.
Is Hagg solely to blame for this rough season? While every player must take responsibility for their play on the ice, there is no doubt that many fans and the organization laid a significant portion of the blame on the shoulders of Dave Hakstol thereby causing his dismissal. So how did Hagg’s numbers compare between the Hakstol portion of the season and the Scott Gordon portion?
ROBERT HAGG – 2018-2019 Season w/Dave Hakstol as Head Coach
ROBERT HAGG – 2018-2019 Season w/Scott Gordon as Head Coach
The numbers tell quite the story. Even though the Flyers experienced a surge in their play and made an admirable run ultimately coming short of making the playoffs, Hagg’s play deteriorated in almost all areas. Most glaringly, his giveaways skyrocketed from 8 in 31 games with Hakstol to 31 in 51 games under Gordon. Additionally, Hagg went from being a plus player with Hakstol (+4) to being a negative player with Gordon (-7). We also have to keep in mind that the ascent of Carter Hart coincided with the beginning of the Dave Hakstol/Scott Gordon coaching change, and had the Flyers not solidified their goaltending through Hart, Hagg’s numbers would most likely have been much worse.
Yes, Hagg did have a bad season in 2018-2019. But does he really deserve the amount of hate that he is getting from Flyer fans? I would say no. In fact, the numbers themselves (as bad as they are) sort of vindicate Hagg in a strange way. He actually played his best hockey for Dave Hakstol. Hagg and his play were not one of the reasons why Hakstol was relieved of his duties on December 17th, 2018. It was the impeccably bad goaltending, almost historically bad penalty killing, inconsistent scoring from the forward units, and lack of motivation and preparation to start games and periods with any sort of intensity. Hagg had very little to do with any of these. In fact, let’s compare Hagg with other Flyers defencemen through the first 20 games last season:
ROBERT HAGG – 2018-2019 Season (First 20 Games w/Dave Hakstol as Head Coach)
IVAN PROVOROV – 2018-2019 Season (First 20 Games w/Dave Hakstol as Head Coach)
SHAYNE GOSTISBEHERE – 2018-2019 Season (First 20 Games w/Dave Hakstol as Head Coach)
TRAVIS SANHEIM – 2018-2019 Season (First 20 Games w/Dave Hakstol as Head Coach)
I could not believe these numbers when I put them up on the screen. Through 20 games (just about a full quarter of an NHL season), Hagg was second to only Gostisbehere in points and was solidly better defensively compared to his peers (albeit with less ice time). In other words, Dave Hakstol was fired because of Dave Hakstol; not Robert Hagg. In fact, Dave Hakstol got fired even though Hagg was successful during the first quarter of the season. Hagg’s season began to really come off the rails after a lopsided 6-0 loss to Toronto on November 24, and with this decline precipitated the firing of GM Ron Hextall and left coach Dave Hakstol with no cover.
So what about his disastrous play under Scott Gordon? Admittedly, Hagg got progressively worse as the season went on. He never regained the confidence that he had earlier in the season. The point though is that he had that confidence and ability to begin with. This is a player that desperately needs to hit the reset button and start over. He rebounded from down years in the AHL and hopefully should be able to do it again at the NHL level with the help of new coach Alain Vigneault. Besides, pretty much every defenceman on the Flyers not named Travis Sanheim is in need of a reset this coming season. Gostisbehere and Provorov were also very disappointing last season, and need to regain their swagger in order to make the Flyers relevant in the Metropolitan Division once again.
Remember when the Flyers got eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 6 games back in 2018? In the elimination game, Radko Gudas was exceptionally horrendous giving the puck away numerous times leading to Penguin goals in an 8-5 loss. I wanted Radko Gudas tarred, feathered, and railroaded out of town. To me he was by far the worst Flyers defenceman and had no future with the team. I was a part of the angry mob. Fast forward to this past season and Radko Gudas was the Barry Ashbee award winner for the Flyers best defenceman. He won because his play was consistent and solid (especially in comparison to his peers as mentioned above). Others have turned seemingly dire situations around, so why not Hagg?
The mob of Flyers fans on twitter that have the pitchforks and torches calling for Hagg to be traded (especially to Calgary who recently indicated they needed a defenceman) do not realize that there is no trade market for him. Calgary will not trade for Hagg and give up a prime asset out of desperation. Would you trade for a player that had as bad a year as Hagg has had? No. So don’t expect Calgary to swoop in with a great offer either. They will be looking to buy low, incredibly low. Besides, with Ivan Provorov currently unsigned, there is no way that GM Chuck Fletcher trades a defenceman at all before the season starts or Provorov gets signed. Therefore, he still has value to the team even if the Twitter mob fails to acknowledge it. So what are the Flyers to do with Hagg?
The Final Verdict
Robert Hagg had a very disappointing second full season in the NHL. He got worse as the season went on and lost the trust of Interim Head Coach Scott Gordon. He is currently the 8th defenceman on the Flyers depth chart and has been leapfrogged by others.
But 2018-2019 is a new season. With new coach Alain Vigneault and a clean slate, Hagg can turn the page from his disappointing season last year. He did it in the AHL once already so why can’t lightning strike twice?
The Swedish blueliner is still only 24 years old. Time and opportunity is running out though. Hagg currently has 1 year remaining on a contract that will pay him $1.15 million dollars. After his contract expires, Hagg will remain an RFA but will be eligible to file for salary arbitration. Spots on the Flyers roster are becoming few and far between with the prospects starting to make their way onto the big club and GM Chuck Fletcher acquiring blueline help via trade with the additions of Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun.
The Flyers may as well hang onto him for the time being. As stated above, they currently need to sign Ivan Provorov to a new deal and will not entertain trade offers for Hagg unless they are too good to refuse. That won’t happen as Hagg has very little trade value. His contract is very manageable and a new deal may provide a big incentive for Hagg to perform this year. This puts the Flyers in a great spot as it would improve Hagg’s trade value if he performs well or allows the Flyers to keep him if they see fit.
I would want to see if Alain Vigneault and the new coaching staff can help bring the more useful Robert Hagg back. As the 8th defenceman on the depth chart, Hagg will need to be patient to get his opportunity to play this season. Don’t bet on Hagg suiting up for the Flyers for every game like he did last season. He is going to be used to rest other players or fill in for injured ones. He will not be playing heavy minutes and will benefit from Vigneault’s ability to create favorable matchups against the opposition. He will be sheltered in his usage and will be given the opportunity to get some of his confidence back. The start of the new season, the new coaching staff, and the contract situation may combine to help bring a better and more consistent Hagg to the Flyers in 2019-2020.
And if he still has a bad season? Then you don’t sign him and you cut your losses. His $1.15 million AAV in combination with other expiring contracts (ie. Tyler Pitlick, Justin Braun, and Brian Elliott) will be needed to sign Nolan Patrick, Phillipe Myers, and Oskar Lindblom before the beginning of next season.
Would I bet on a massive resurgence from Robert Hagg? No. But I would expect a better season from him for all of the reasons listed above.
I do feel though that all the hatred and venom from fans towards Robert Hagg is misguided and unwarranted for the most part. He has become the de-facto whipping boy now that Andrew MacDonald is no longer on this team. Anything that goes wrong with the Flyers must be because of Robert Hagg. The angry mob conveniently ignores the fact that Hagg actually played pretty well at the beginning of last season and even though his play deteriorated, was not one of the main reasons the Flyers missed the playoffs. Spoiler alert: Hagg will not be the reason the Flyers make or miss the playoffs this coming season either. Blaming Hagg for the Flyers’ shortcomings is just making excuses for others on the roster who are not pulling their own weight and is the cheapest form of scapegoating.
And there you have it ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Robert Hagg may or may not be a good NHL defenceman (I myself am still on the fence), but I hope that I have convinced you that his treatment at the hands of the Flyer Fan Mob has been excessive.
If you still feel that Robert Hagg is guilty of being a bad defenceman: fine. But hopefully I have at least offered up some reasonable doubt to your position.
Do you agree or disagree? Feel free to leave a comment or leave a response via twitter.
Until next time from Preaching to the Flyer on BrotherlyPuck.com,
photo credit: NHL.com