2 years after trade, Brandon Hagel provides star power for Lightning

NEWARK, N.J. — Three days before the 2022 trade deadline, the Lightning sent a package that included two first-round draft picks to the Blackhawks for left wing Brandon Hagel. At the time, Hagel was a budding 23-year-old with a team-friendly contract that made him an attractive trade target around the NHL.

Nearly two years later, Hagel has blossomed into one of the Lightning’s most valuable players. Though his growth has been overshadowed this season by right wing Nikita Kucherov’s Hart Trophy-caliber play, Hagel has stood out in a locker room full of stars.

After a goal, two assists, and a plus-4 rating in Sunday’s 4-1 win at New Jersey, Hagel has points in his last 13 games, the longest active streak in the NHL entering Monday and tied for the third-longest in Lightning history. Hagel’s 58 points in 60 games rank fourth on the team, his 36 assists third.

Going back to Jan. 4, Hagel has been one of the NHL’s top point producers. His 26 even-strength points are second-most in the league, trailing only Kucherov’s 27. His 11 even-strength goals over that stretch are tied for fourth-most. The Lightning are 14-7-0 during that time, and Hagel had points in 19 of those 21 games.

Hagel plays important minutes as a top penalty-killing forward with Anthony Cirelli, and the duo have created numerous shorthanded scoring opportunities. He also is positioned on the left side of the second power-play unit. His 19:23 average ice time is a career high.

“I think if you’re going to pick MVPs on our team,” head coach Jon Cooper said, “Kuch would be leading the way. But you’d be hard-pressed to (not) say, especially since we came back from the break, that Hags is right there with him.”

Hagel splits his 5-on-5 shifts between a line centered by Cirelli that often faces the opposition’s top line, and Tampa Bay’s top scoring line with center Brayden Point and Kucherov.

Cooper often calls Hagel the Lightning’s “Swiss Army knife” because he can be used effectively in both roles. He can be a lockdown presence with Cirelli — hounding pucks, winning battles and attacking the net. He also can hold his own with elite players, the best fit on the top line since Ondrej Palat signed with the Devils two offseasons ago.

“When Ondrej Palat used to play there, he’s one of the guys who would kind of piece the whole thing together,” Cooper said. “And I wasn’t sure you’d find somebody who’s that type of player. ... Hags does a lot of the same things that Palat did. They’re just 200-foot players that never say die and never quit, and Hags is one of those guys and he can play with the league’s best, and he’s been showing that for a long time now.”

It seems whenever the Lightning need a boost offensively, Hagel moves up to play with Point and Kucherov. Sunday, the three players combined for nine points and factored in all four goals. In 12:58 together, they combined for 18 shot attempts and 11 shots on goal, all team highs. Perhaps most importantly, they didn’t allow a goal despite 16 New Jersey shot attempts against them.

Before defenseman Victor Hedman opened the scoring 1:27 into the second period, Hagel chased down a loose puck in the corner and battled along the boards to keep it in the offensive zone. He passed to Kucherov, who drove to the slot and drew defenders to him before setting up a wide-open Hedman at the far post.

With the Lightning clinging to a 2-1 lead midway through the third, Hagel jumped up at the blue line to glove the puck out of the air, staying onside, and sent it to the trailing Kucherov. As Kucherov passed to Point, Hagel went to the front of the net and swept in a rebound for what might have been the biggest goal of the game.

Still not done, Hagel later fed Kucherov for an empty-net goal with 95 seconds remaining to seal the win.

“I think I’m just sticking to the way I know how to play — getting pucks back, working hard, getting to the net, making plays when they need to be made,” Hagel said.

“And getting the puck to No. 86 (Kucherov) always helps,” he added.

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