GLENDALE, Ariz. — No matter how lopsided the Blackhawks’ 2019 swap of Henri Jokiharju to the Sabres for Alex Nylander looks in retrospect — after Nylander’s unceremonious departure to the Penguins on Wednesday — there’s another player the Hawks can always hold over the Sabres: Brandon Hagel.
When Hagel broke out as a rookie last season, former Sabres general manager Jason Botterill’s 2018 decision not to sign him and relinquish his rights — Hagel had been drafted in the sixth round two years earlier by Botterill’s predecessor, Tim Murray — already looked as dumb as ex-Hawks GM Stan Bowman’s Nylander obsession.
Hagel’s solid performance in 2021-22 has further underscored Botterill’s foolishness.
That’s water under the bridge now for Hagel, though. He passed the threshold of 82 career games Sunday. Though being put in the COVID-19 protocol Thursday could keep him out for a few games, he’s as secure and at home in the NHL as anyone at this point.
But he’s still craving his first taste of true NHL team success — namely the playoffs.
“Everyone takes a little peek,” he said Tuesday. “Everyone wants to play in the playoffs, everyone wants to get there, so you’re always doing the math a little bit in your head every once in a while.”
Unless he’s doing it wrong, that mental math is presumably spitting out some very low numbers.
The Hawks needed to snap their pattern from November and December of alternating wins and losses with a big winning streak if they wanted to become legit playoff candidates. Instead, they went on a big losing streak.
Entering Thursday, their playoff odds sat at 0.4%, according to Sports Club Stats.
Hagel nonetheless insists he and the rest of the Hawks still believe in themselves.
“We’ve been saying it all year: We’ll get out of this,” he said. “I don’t think we’re counting ourselves out anytime soon.
”We’re going to keep pushing, keep playing the way we can and keep sticking together as a group because that’s what’s going to get us out of this.”
He’s doing his part, at least, to help the cause.
With eight goals and eight assists in 30 games, Hagel entered Thursday leading the Hawks in even-strength points per minute.
Significant chunks of Patrick Kane’s and Alex DeBrincat’s totals are generated on the power play, but that’s not the case with Hagel.
Brandon Hagel entered Thursday with eight goals and eight assists this year.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
His rare combination of breakaway speed, an intense work ethic and a willingness to get physical when needed makes him an ace-in-the-hole kind of option for interim coach Derek King.
“He’s a huge part of [our offense],” King said. “The way he plays, I can put him [in the] top six or bottom six, and he’s going to play the same way. He’s not going to change his game. He helps other players; he helps other lines. If he’s scoring, great. If not, he’s still creating something out on the ice, which helps us.
“He’s going to score more greasy goals than DeBrincat-style goals, but we need a lot more of those greasy goals from our guys.”
If there’s any criticism to be made of Hagel’s performance, it’s his moderate shooting decline over the course of the season.
His shot frequency has dropped from 2.7 to 2.3 per game and his accuracy (on-goal rate) from 58% to 37% when comparing his pre-Dec. 1 and post-Dec. 1 stats.
King said he wasn’t worried about that, though. And Hagel’s mellow personality doesn’t lend itself to getting bogged down and overthinking a slump, as shown by the casualness of another one of his comments Tuesday.
“I’d like to score more — I’ve kind of taken a break off of that — but offensively I’m doing what I can,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been too out of place.”
He has been working during this season on his timing, his play along the boards and his ability to flip back and forth between right and left wing. He’ll hope his time away doesn’t derail that momentum.
And at 23, he almost certainly hasn’t reached his NHL peak yet. When the Hawks finally manage to rebuild themselves into playoff contenders, Hagel stands as good a chance as anyone on the roster to still be around.
The wait until that moment might just turn out to take longer than he hopes.