Two weeks after trade, Brandon Hagel excited about future with Lightning: ‘There’s no place I’d rather be’
Hagel will face the Blackhawks on Friday still figuring out his best role on the Lightning, but he has embraced this unexpected new chapter of his career.
TAMPA, Fla. — Just as he expected all along, Brandon Hagel spent Thursday night in the same hotel as the Blackhawks.
But until two weeks ago, he never would’ve believed this twist: He did so as a member of the Lightning, getting ready to face the Hawks on Friday 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 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 Hawk is looking forward to what this unexpected new chapter of his career will bring.
“It’s exciting,” Hagel, who had an empty-net goal against the Hawks in Tampa Bay’s 5-2 victory, 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 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 last two years. I need to find a specific role where I’ll help this team win.”
Back on March 18, of course, his thoughts weren’t so well 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 called 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 of hours later that I found out where I was going.”
Craziest of all was that the return for him — two first-round picks and rookie forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk — matched Hagel’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of his 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, that 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 provided Hagel a welcome, if weird, opportunity to debrief with many of his former teammates. He was only able to say goodbye to a few because most already had left for the airport, so he hoped to make up for that with some hotel-hallway run-ins and postgame chats.
It also provided Hagel with 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 short-handed against the Bruins last week, but that was his only point before the empty-netter.
Entering Friday, his playing time had dropped from 17:28 per game with the Hawks to 12:09 with the Lightning, primarily on the third line.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has urged patience, telling him stories of deadline additions in previous years — such as Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow last spring — finding their stride and making huge impacts in the playoffs.
“They’re not going to just throw me 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. You have to earn it.
“I’ve gone through it my entire career, 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.”