Two months after he surely thought he’d make his NHL debut, Brandon Hagel finally might get in a game for the Blackhawks this week.
Hagel was recalled on an emergency basis from the AHL on Monday after Drake Caggiula injured his wrist in a fight Sunday with Vince Dunn, knocking the Hawks down to 11 healthy forwards.
Unless Caggiula recovers quickly — in time for the game Wednesday against the Sharks — Hagel will enter the lineup for the first time.
If so, it will be an inspiring and gratifying end to Hagel’s tumultuous journey to this point.
He was drafted by the Sabres in June 2016, then left unsigned by the team in June 2018. Hagel remained with his junior team in Red Deer, Alberta, for a rare fourth season in 2018-19 and exploded from 59 points to 102. The Hawks noticed early on and signed him to an entry-level deal in October.
But from June to October, with no NHL interest in sight, Hagel considered a future without hockey.
“It’s definitely a whirlwind,” he said in January in Toronto. “About a year ago, I was signing up for classes, just in case I had to go to school. But now I’m here, less than a year from when I signed. It’s been crazy ups and downs in my career, but I finally got here and I just got to roll with it.”
Hagel said he hadn’t gone as far as picking out a college, but statistics don’t favor 20-year-olds entering their fourth junior season making it in professional hockey. He was wise to prepare for alternatives.
And Hagel’s whirlwind wasn’t over when he spoke in January. The Hawks recalled him Jan. 16, sent him down Jan. 19, recalled him Jan. 20, sent him down Jan. 21, then recalled him and sent him down within a few hours Feb. 29. He was brought up each time solely to be the 13th forward for road games, just in case.
Meanwhile, the scrappy wing continued to produce in his rookie season with the IceHogs, entering this week with a team-best 19 goals along with 12 assists in 59 games.
“He brings something similar to [Matthew] Highmore in just his work ethic,” Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said in January. “He’s a great skater, he wins races, he plays with a little edge. He’s got a little bit of rat in him, and we like that.”
Given that Hagel will be the Hawks’ temporary 12th — not 13th — forward, it appears he finally will break though.
The Hawks were able to designate the move as an emergency call-up, thus not expending one of their two remaining standard call-ups this season.
That could come in handy if they try to give some of their other promising AHL prospects their first NHL opportunity in the remaining 13 games of this now-lost season.
Philipp Kurashev, a dynamic young center ranked No. 2 in the Sun-Times’ midseason prospect rankings, is healthy again after a two-month injury absence and could be next in line behind Hagel. Defenseman Nicolas Beaudin and grinding winger MacKenzie Entwistle also might be considered.
Former presumptive backup-goalie-to-be Collin Delia also has probably earned a late-season NHL stint, considering the Hawks’ apparent disinterest in playing Malcolm Subban. Delia boasts a .927 save percentage in his last 24 AHL starts.