TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Emotional investment in this prospects tournament varies greatly.
The hoards of Red Wings fans who have packed Centre Ice Arena each day have been on the edge of their seats, especially now that the Wings are headed to the tournament final.
The front office executives watching from above see it as a player-development and evaluation opportunity rather than a blood-and-guts competition. Just look at the Blackhawks’ decision to rest stars Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist on Monday, even though the game had implications on the Hawks’ eventual finish.
The players and coaches typically fall somewhere in between. Except, apparently, Brandon Hagel.
After the Hawks blew a two-goal lead and fell to the Blues 4-2 to finish in last place in the division, Hagel — an increasingly relevant name lately in the pipeline — looked like he had just lost a playoff series.
“Losing sucks. I hate to lose,” Hagel said, staring down at the floor, his sweaty hair shrouding his eyes. “I’ve never been a fan of losing. Coming from Red Deer, playing for [former Hawks forward] Brent Sutter, he hates to lose, and that’s just where I got it from.
“Even though it’s preseason, I want to win, I want our team to do the best.”
It was a striking display of deep emotional investment during a time of year when many scrimmages and exhibitions are lacking that. Hagel’s chagrin might not have been fully justified — the Hawks had already been eliminated from title contention — but it was clearly heartfelt, and that says something impressive about his competitiveness.
A former Sabres draft pick signed last October by the Hawks, Hagel has risen quickly up the hierarchy of forward prospects in the organization.
He’s a well-rounded player with solid skills, but his intense drive has long been noted as his strongest asset. If he eventually makes the NHL, it’ll be because of that.
In the meantime, Hagel is bound for Rockford this season after making eight AHL appearances late last spring, and his tirelessness has already caught IceHogs coach Derek King’s attention.
“He complements players — it doesn’t matter who he plays with, he plays the same way,” King said. “He plays hard minutes. It’s not like he paces himself out there, which is a good thing.”
More observations from Monday’s loss
- Mikael Hakkarainen, another soon-to-be first-year Rockford forward, had a breakout performance, tipping in the Hawks’ first goal and executing a slick steal-and-breakaway to set up the second goal. The former fifth-round pick admitted he was “doubtful” he could play against this level of competition entering the weekend, but now feels much more comfortable.
- MacKenzie Entwistle was disappointingly quiet despite moving up into the first-line center role with Dach scratched. Philipp Kurashev, who excelled Saturday, was also less noticeable, and King called him out afterward for not managing the puck well.
- Speaking of Dach (and Boqvist), the Hawks looked brutally outmatched without their two best players, even up against a Blues prospect group that had been outscored 13-5 in their first two games. Shots on goal in the third period were 15-2, St. Louis. They’ll seek to finish their northern Michigan stay on a brighter note Tuesday against the Wild.