TAMPA, Fla. –Just as he expected all along, Brandon Hagel spent Thursday night in the same Tampa hotel as the Blackhawks.
But until two weeks ago, he never would’ve believed this caveat: he did so as a member of the Lightning, getting ready to face the Hawks in his seventh game for his new team.
As evidenced by his hotel-room living situation –although he “can’t complain about living 10 feet from the water” — Hagel is still adjusting to the city of Tampa and the Lightning. He’s still trying to find his niche and likely will be trying for the rest of the regular season, which the NHL’s two-time defending champions basically consider an experimental preseason for what comes next.
As his whirlwind March turns to April, however, the 23-year-old former Hawks forward is looking forward to what this unexpected new chapter of his career will bring.
“It’s really exciting,” Hagel told the Sun-Times on Thursday. “There’s 16 games left, and this is [about] figuring out how this team plays and figuring out my role and how I’m going to really help these guys down the road.
“Obviously my role in Chicago was probably a little bit more than it will be here. But [when] you look at the players on this team, it’s incredible. These guys have done so much in the past two years. I need to find a specific role where I’ll help this team win, and that’s all I want to do.”
Back on March 18, of course, his thoughts weren’t so put together.
He was “literally about to walk out the door” of Fifth Third Arena after practice that Friday, ready for the Hawks’ flight to Minnesota, when he was pulled up to general manager Kyle Davidson’s office.
“I went up and they had the [trade] conversation with me, but they couldn’t tell me where,” he said. “My mind was going pretty crazy. I was texting a lot of people saying, ‘I got traded, but I have no idea where.’ [It wasn’t until] a couple hours later I found out where I was going.”
Craziest of all was that the Hawks’ return for him –two first-round picks and two rookie forwards in Taylor Raddysh (who already looks like a savvy addition) and Boris Katchouk — exactly matched Hagel’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of his trade value after his Feb. 25 hat trick.
“That was a joke,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t actually think I was going to get traded for two first-rounders and two prospects. But here we are. That’s what happened.”
He actually didn’t think, despite the rumors, he was going to be traded at all.
“That’s kind of why I was joking around with [the media] a little bit,” he said. “But I was able to keep that positive mindset going to a team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Everyone’s dream is to play in the playoffs and try to win a Stanley Cup, so getting that opportunity, I can’t be more thankful. And with them giving that much up for me, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
Friday’s game day will provide Hagel a welcome, if weird, opportunity to debrief with many of his former Hawks teammates.
He was only able to say goodbye to a few on March 18, since most had already left for the airport, so he hoped to make up for that with some hotel hallway run-ins and postgame chats. In between, he’ll have “no friends” on the ice –even former roommate MacKenzie Entwistle “is probably going to get a big body out there,” he said.
Friday will also provide Hagel another opportunity to start settling into a new rhythm.
He was glad he got his first goal with the Lightning out of the way quickly, scoring shorthanded against the Bruins last week, but that is his only point through six games.
His playing time has dropped from 17:28 per game with the Hawks to 12:09 so far with the Lightning, primarily on the third line with Ross Colton and fellow trade addition Nick Paul. The Lightning have been cumulatively outscored 4-1 during his even-strength ice time, and his shooting frequency has declined from 10.9 attempts (per 60 minutes) to 6.6.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has nonetheless urged patience, telling him stories of deadline additions in previous years –such as, famously, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow last spring –finding their strides and making huge impacts come the playoffs.
“They’re not going to just throw me in there to the wolves,” Hagel said. “They’re going to take some time with me, and I appreciate that. I appreciate them trusting me, and I trust the process. … I don’t want to just jump in and take someone’s opportunity. It’s one of those things where you have to earn it.”
And he has certainly proven adeptness at earning things.
“I’ve gone through it my entire career,” he added. “So it’s nothing new for me, starting from the bottom and working your way up. That’s what I’ve been known to do. So it’s just another day.”