Fast times for Carl Hagelin on Penguins' sizzling HBK line
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The call reached Carl Hagelin at dinner, but the incoming number wasn’t stored in his phone so he didn’t answer. It was Jan. 15, 2016, halfway through his first season with the Anaheim Ducks, and after their home win over Dallas that night—in which Hagelin recorded his fourth point in four games—the supersonic Swede went out for dinner with his father, girlfriend, and a family friend. Today, he remembers listening to the voicemail in the elevator after eating. Ducks GM Bob Murray was on the other end, asking to talk. As hockey lifers, Hagelin and his father knew this portended change. The family friend, on the other hand, was more optimistic.
“Maybe he’s calling to say you had a good game,” the friend said.
“GMs usually don’t do that,” Hagelin replied.
Once home, Hagelin finally reached Murray. A late night trade was coming to fruition, Hagelin learned, one that would ship him to his third team in less than seven months. He felt blindsided at first, particularly since he had begun enjoying some offensive success and the Ducks were rounding the corner after a miserable start. But a closer look at his new club calmed his nerves. Countryman Patric Hornqvist, who Hagelin knew well, was on it. So was Mike Sullivan, Hagelin’s former assistant coach with the New York Rangers, who was now helming the bench in Pittsburgh after the midseason firing of Mike Johnston. Hagelin anticipated feeling right at home.
“I had just started playing well with the Anaheim Ducks and I think my speed would’ve been beneficial to them too,” Hagelin says. “That’s why they acquired me. I just found my game too late and the team found their game too late. I was just thinking I was going to go out and play the way I can. I knew Sully and he expected me to be one of those guys who chase down pucks to use my speed and create chances.”
As he spoke after Game 4 of Stanley Cup Final, Hagelin leaned against the wall outside the visiting dressing room at SAP Center in San Jose, a gray Pittsburgh hoodie tugged over his head. His third assist in the four games helped solidify the Penguins’ 3–1 victory, their 42nd in 59 games since he was acquired, and now they were one more win away from the championship, heading back home with the chance to clinch. “It’s a lot of fun,” Hagelin says. “You go through a lot of different scenarios. You’re up, you’re down. That’s why you play for the love of the game. That’s why you keep pushing.”
Hagelin has always navigated these bumps with fluidity. One of the rare Swedish players who has immigrated stateside to attend an American college, he spent four years at the University of Michigan, handling the cultural and lingual adjustments as well as the on-ice ones. “An incredible adapter,” says Louie Caporusso, his former roommate and teammate. “He’s always honest with himself. I don't think he’s scared to realize what he lacks and has to improve on. He’s the type of guy who’s always asking questions—what does this word or that word mean? He wasn’t shy about getting better. He’s never been shy to admit to himself what he lacks.”
Linemate Matt Rust, for instance, remembers Hagelin studying “about half the amount of time” for a freshman-year statistics class and still emerging with an A. For someone who now boasts a steady slap shot at the NHL level, Hagelin scored for the first time that way during Senior Night.
“Cappy, Cappy, worst slap shot ever,” he would tell Caporusso.
“Don’t worry,” Caporusso would say. “You can fly.”
Indeed, speed and energy have always been Hagelin’s hallmark attributes. (College teammates who nicknamed him “Hot Carl,” however, would disagree, pointing instead to the scores of Michigan women who grew infatuated with the European winger.) “He loves his little five-minute power naps,” Caporusso says. “He’s an energizer bunny. He doesn’t do anything half-assed.” For this reason, even teammates grew frustrated in practice when Hagelin would appear from nowhere on the forecheck, skating at a blistering pace, and poke the puck away in a Tasmanian Devilish blur. “He’s a pest,” Caporusso says. A good thing, like when his takeaway from San Jose defenseman Brenden Dillon in Game 2 tabled linemate Phil Kessel’s icebreaking goal. “Case in point,” Caporusso says. “That’s Carl in a nutshell.”
“I imagine, for scouting reports on the other end, teams were definitely talking about Carl,” says Rust, whose brother Bryan now plays with Hagelin in Pittsburgh. “The kid never gets tired.”
Though he famously found himself in tempestuous coach John Tortorella's doghouse, Hagelin’s swiftness still served him well in New York, particularly during the Rangers’ run to the 2014 Cup Final, when he notched five even-strength goals and two shorthanded strikes. And now it has him at home as the left winger on this postseason’s most dangerous trio, known worldwide as HBK.
“The three of them together, they all bring something special to the table,” Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin says. “Hagelin has elite speed. [Nick] Bonino’s got elite hockey sense and hands. Phil Kessel’s got an elite shot and speed. They bring three different elements to the table, but the things that they bring are elite. They just all go well together, and they enjoy playing together.”
In some ways, Hagelin has escaped the spotlight that has been beamed onto his linemates. Bonino’s chinstrap beard, which college teammate Vinny Saponari referred to as “looking like an Amish bowler,” and the catchy Punjabi goal call of his last name—BONINO BONINO BONINO BONINO BOONNNNIIIINNNO!—has made the center a headline regular. Same with Kessel, arguably the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite, on his post-Toronto redemption tour that now includes 10 goals and 21 points, both team-highs in the playoffs, plus the giant jug of mouthwash left after his infamous bad-breath interview with NBC’s Pierre McGuire.
“You can’t manufacture that stuff,” Guerin says. “But it’s a lot of fun to watch. They’re a great line. They’re three good guys, good personalities. I think they’re having a lot of fun with this stuff. It’s good for them.”
Make no mistake, these narratives are moot on the line itself, same with the mutual trade paths each member took to Pittsburgh—Hagelin from Anaheim, Bonino from Vancouver, Kessel from the Leafs. “We enjoy each other’s company, but we try not to talk too much about how we got here,” Hagelin says. “It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong. But we don’t think about that stuff at all.” Instead, they are content wreaking matchup nightmares on opponents, leading the postseason with 13 goals at five-on-five.
“When you have [Sidney] Crosby on one online, [Evgeni] Malkin on another and Kessel on another, we have pretty good scoring depth,” Guerin says. “Almost every shift of the game, you’ve got an elite player on the ice.”
At least in the public’s eye, this was not the case late in Game 4 as the Penguins clung to their 2–1 lead. As defenseman Olli Maatta battled along the wall, Hagelin looped from center-ice and noticed Dillon backing off, respecting his speed. When Maatta nudged the puck forward, Hagelin read the play perfectly, grabbing possession at the offensive blue line and spotting Eric Fehr, the right-winger who had subbed out Kessel, bolting backdoor. It was a familiar play. “I tried to whip it across quick,” Hagelin said later. “I’m used to having Phil going there, so I have to make that play or Phil will get mad.”
Hagelin was joking, of course. No hard feelings here. Just the Penguins nearing their first Stanley Cup in seven seasons, the H in HBK flying fast as always.