Brandon Hagel’s tenacious work ethic proving infectious for Blackhawks
Hagel’s hunger for the puck is rubbing off on the rest of the Hawks’ forwards. “He’s driving the mentality that we want,” GM Stan Bowman said recently.
Brandon Hagel knows how to make himself heard.
After Hagel set up Pius Suter’s overtime goal Tuesday, Suter realized he had scored only because of Hagel’s arena-filling yell.
“I actually didn’t know it was in until I just heard ‘Hages’ screaming,” Suter said. “[That] was a relief.”
As a regular in the Blackhawks’ lineup for the first time — the 22-year-old Canadian’s only prior NHL appearance was in the last game of last season — Hagel has been noticeable nearly every night with his persistent forechecking and tireless work ethic.
And that tireless work ethic has become contagious, spreading from Hagel to the rest of the forward corps.
“He brings lots of energy, and that’s what everybody should do,” Dominik Kubalik said Thursday. “[He’s] skating a lot, putting lots of pressure on the puck, getting those pucks back. That’s something that’s really helpful for the team and makes it easier for everyone else.”
General manager Stan Bowman, an influential voice to have as support, also raved about Hagel recently.
“He’s very relentless, and he’s got that energy,” Bowman said. “Forecheck [or] backcheck, he’s always going. That’s something we want more of across the board from our team. We’ve seen that almost like it’s infectious. You watch Hagel play, you get excited, because he’s driving the mentality that we want.”
Hagel’s journey to this breakthrough moment was long and taxing. After the Sabres let his draft signing rights expire in 2018, he briefly considered signing up for college classes, thinking his hockey career might not pan out.
He erupted in his fourth and final year in juniors, though, scoring 102 points in 66 games and earning an entry-level contract with the Hawks. He led Rockford in points last season, then pushed his way into the Hawks’ lineup in the fourth game this season.
At the NHL level, Hagel will probably never be a star. His huge assist Tuesday was only his second point in now 12 games. He has yet to score a goal despite numerous breakaway opportunities.
Yet, he’s exactly the kind of role player successful teams need in abundance: tenacious, unflappable, defensively responsible and skilled enough to contribute offensively at times, too.
“He’s on the hunt when he’s on the ice,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “He’s putting pressure on the puck, and you end up forcing extra turnovers, end up being a possession player when you do that. We feel like he’s only going to get better here.”
Hagel’s possession stats, as Colliton referenced, are excellent. After Thursday’s game, he leads Hawks in shot-attempt ratio (54.4%) and ranks second in scoring chance ratio (55.5%).
Those impressive numbers are a product of Hagel’s seemingly innate magnetism toward frozen rubber objects.
“[It’s] not very fun playing without the puck,” he said, describing his mindset. “I just want to get the puck. I’m hungry for the puck. And I think playing with the puck is a lot more fun.”
Hagel has worked closely with NHL veteran and now-Hawks player development advisor Chris Kunitz to perfect the nuances of his forechecking techniques.
Kunitz has coached Hagel to keep his feet moving in pursuit, to neutralize opponents’ hands and sticks in puck battles and — when he can’t win the race to the puck outright — to stay higher in the offensive zone to interrupt passes and force turnovers.
“He’s really helped me with little things,” Hagel said. “Working on the wall and stuff in practice, just certain routes that can benefit me.”
And unsurprisingly, Hagel remains eagerly motivated to improve further. His infectious work ethic appears in practice just as much as in games.
“I don’t want to stop,” he said. “I’m not satisfied. I want to be the best I possibly can [be] in this league.”