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Carl Hagelin is as important as he is frustrating

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He does not score, he does not score when he has the chances ... but he is an essential part of the team.

NHL: New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Before their loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager appeared on his radio show and went off on his team’s performance so far this season, criticizing just about everyone while pondering the possibility of making some changes if things don’t turn around fast.

It was something, and you can listen to all of it here. Most of the anger and disappointment comes in the first six minutes of the show.

Among the harshest criticisms were those directed at unnamed players, specifically those that might be chasing contracts after the season and may be getting away from their role in an effort to rack up points, and players outside of the big-four (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang) that are not carrying their weight.

Even though he may not be one of the exact players Rutherford was referring to, there is one player on the roster that does fit in both of those categories.

That player is Carl Hagelin. So let us talk about him for a little bit today.

He is an unrestricted free agent after this season (though I do not get the impression he is chasing points at the expense of his role), and like pretty much every player outside of the big-four has done little, to nothing, this season to make himself noticeable when it comes to creating offense.

That is kind of problem. It is also maddeningly frustrating, especially when you consider the role he still gets and the positions he puts himself in.

Before the season I kind of defended Hagelin’s spot on the team, even with his pricey contract, because he is a good defensive player, tends to emerge from his offensive slumber at crucial times, and at least presents the illusion of creating scoring chances even if he almost never converts on them.

So far this season he seems to be converting on even less of them.

He is occupying a top-six spot, next to one of the NHL’s leading scorers, and after Wednesday’s game has three points (only one goal) in 14 games.

Wednesday’s game was everything that makes you want to pull your hair out regarding Hagelin because he had chances.

On one instance, he had a yawning net right in front of him for what looked to be a sure goal and totally shanked the shot wide (to be fair, Malkin did the exact same thing just a second later, but whether it is fair or not I am more inclined to give the guy with 20 points in 14 games a little more of a leash there than the guy that has three).

Later, he created one of his patented partial breakaways that looked like a scoring chances, and didn’t convert on it.

The thing that stands out here is that when coach Mike Sullivan threw all of his lines and defense pairings into a blender for Wednesday’s game, the one duo that remained untouched was Malkin and Hagelin.

It certainly looks like a little curious that Hagelin is the guy that does not get bumped around and continues to get a lengthy leash in the top-six even though he is not producing to match that spot.

But when you dig a little deeper I can see an objective reason for it. That reason: It works, and for as maddening as Hagelin is, he does provide a defensive presence that Malkin (and Kessel when he is the third part of that line) absolutely needs on the wing.

The numbers from the past three years, stunningly, show this.

They all play better when they are together.

First, here is Malkin with and without Hagelin (and Hagelin without Malkin) since the start of the 2016-17 season.

(All data here is via Natural Stat Trick)

Evgeni Malkin with Carl Hagelin Since Start Of 2016-17

Lineup TOI CF% Goal Differential Scoring Chance % High Danger Scoring Chance %
Lineup TOI CF% Goal Differential Scoring Chance % High Danger Scoring Chance %
Malkin With Hagelin 1083.31 55.1 23 56.3 56.5
Malkin Without Hagelin 1091.24 49.8 3 49.5 46.9
Hagelin Without Malkin 932.54 52.1 -9 51.1 50.1

For Wednesday, the Penguins started Patric Hornqvist as the the third member of this line, something they have done quite often over the past three years. How does that trio look versus when Hagelin is removed from the equation?

Evgeni Malkin And Patric Hornqvist With Carl Hagelin Since 2016-17

Lineup TOI CF% Goal Differential Scoring Chance % High Danger Scoring Chance %
Lineup TOI CF% Goal Differential Scoring Chance % High Danger Scoring Chance %
Malkin And Hornqvist With Hagelin 416.01 58.5 6 61.2 61.1
Malkin And Hornqvist Without Hagelin 333.12 51.4 1 54.1 53.9

Okay, not a huge difference in terms of goal differential, but another substantial difference in terms of possession and scoring chances.

What about when Phil Kessel is the third member of that line...

Evgeni Malkin And Phil Kessel With Carl Hagelin Since 2016-17

Lineup TOI CF% Goal Differential Scoring Chance % High Danger Scoring Chance %
Lineup TOI CF% Goal Differential Scoring Chance % High Danger Scoring Chance %
Malkin And Kessel With Hagelin 528.45 52.3 15 52.4 52.9
Malkin And Kessel Without Hagelin 650.49 50.7 4 48.2 42.6

This is totally blowing my mind because I don’t want to say Carl Hagelin is the one driving these lines (because that would be insane) but it certainly looks like Carl Hagelin at least ... makes them better?

It is really hard to dispute those numbers, and while they are all relatively small sample size, they are all still pretty equal in terms of time on ice.

What is not equal is the production, or the possession, or the scoring chances. They are all remarkably better with Hagelin on the ice. It does make some sense. Hagelin’s style of play and his role is such that he is doing a lot of thankless grunt work and play away from the puck that goes unnoticed and probably isn’t getting done by the other two (well, Hornqvist will do it, too). It doesn’t get noticed because it doesn’t translate into points for him. That gets frustrating because when Hagelin does get the opportunity to turn it into points he usually fails to convert on it.

In the end, I’m not really sure what to make of Carl Hagelin.

I came to this today ready to sat he was one of the players they need more from right now, because they need someone that isn’t Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, or Letang to score. They do kind of need more from him.

But at this point we already know you are probably not going to get that from Carl Hagelin, which makes his ice time and role ... frustrating. But there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that he is still important in the role he is getting. Very important.