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Lightning Have Found Their Ondrej Palat Replacement

And his name rhymes with Bagel.

Buffalo Sabres v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Last season when Julien BriseBois and the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Brandon Hagel, they paid a hefty price for a young winger on an affordable contract. The Lightning received Hagel and a 2022 and 2024 fourth round pick from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forwards Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, a 2023 1st round pick, and 2024 1st round pick.

You can almost divide the trade into two distinct parts of Hagel for the two first round picks, and Raddysh and Katchouk for the two fourth round picks. The Lightning needed to move Raddysh and Katchouk to make salary cap space for Hagel and two fourth round picks is roughly what both should have been worth on the trade market as young, depth forwards on affordable contracts for a couple more seasons. Hagel for two first round picks also sounds about right considering his production (21 goals and 37 points in 55 games for Chicago) and his contract (two more years at $1.5 million).

When the Lightning made the trade, the first thought that went through my head was “Wow! That’s a lot to give up!” The second thought was “Wow! They found their replacement for Ondrej Palat!” The writing was very much on the wall with the Lightning’s salary cap situation that they would not be able to retain the services of the affable veteran winger.

Even after moving Ryan McDonagh’s contract this offseason, the Lightning would have struggled to pay Palat what he was worth for one-year, and it would have been even harder in 2023-24 to make any salary work for him as well.

While the Lightning tried to make a deal work with Palat, they just couldn’t come to an agreement that worked for both sides despite mutual interest in a return. Palat ultimately signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Devils for five years with a $6 million cap hit that the Lightning just couldn’t afford to match.

Hagel got a brief audition playing with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, his now linemates, last year after he was acquired. It only lasted for part of one game though and he ended up with just over four minutes of 5v5 ice time with the pair with disappointing results. It was clear that it was not clicking for the trio and they were broken up. Hagel settled into a role down the stretch lower in the lines spending most of his time with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli, but also had a good stretch with Nick Paul and Ross Colton on the third line. He spent time on both lines throughout the playoffs as well.

I recognized at the time that he got put with Point and Kucherov that it didn’t work out. It was obvious the chemistry wasn’t there. I also realized that Hagel was still in the adjustment period and likely needed more practice time and a training camp to develop that chemistry and comfortability with the Lightning’s top forwards. After all, it’s not like Hagel didn’t have experience playing with talented forwards. He spent a large chunk of time in Chicago playing with the likes of Patrick Kane, Dylan Strome, Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, and Alex DeBrincat.

Hagel didn’t initially get the spot next to Point and Kucherov to start the season, with Steven Stamkos taking the left wing spot on opening night. Hagel slotted in on the second line with Killorn and Paul. It didn’t take long for him and Stamkos to switch spots as the Lightning had some struggles at even strength to start the season.

After going the first five games of the season without recording a point, Hagel broke his scoring bagel with the first line by picking up a secondary assist with Nikita Kucherov on a Brayden Point goal. Hagel then got his first goal of the season just over seven minutes later with an assist from Point and Victor Hedman.

From there, Hagel has taken off. Over the past 15 games, he has recorded six goals and 15 points with 12 of his 15 points coming at even strength. He has had four multi-point games including matching his career high with a three-point game on November 5th against the Buffalo Sabres with a goal and two assists.

Ever since being put together, the Hagel-Point-Kucherov line has been dynamic offensively and one of the best 5v5 lines in hockey. They’re also one of only six forward lines to play together for at least 200 minutes at 5v5 so far this season. Among the 47 forward lines with at least 100 minutes at 5v5 so far this season, that line ranks 10th in CF%, 18th in xGF%, and 5th in xGF60. They’ve actually been under performing their xGF60 so far, which shows a little bit of variance that line has been experiencing at 5v5 since all three are strong shooters.

The last time Kucherov’s GF60 was lower than his xGF60 at 5v5 was... 2013-14, his rookie year. Brayden Point has never had his GF60 below his xGF60 at 5v5 in his career until this season. That line is capable of scoring more and more often than they have been. As they continue to get more comfortable with each other, I expect that those numbers will turn around and they’ll get to the point of outperforming their xGF.

It’s taken some time for Hagel to settle in and find his groove, but it’s obvious now that the Lightning did indeed find their Ondrej Palat replacement when they acquired Hagel. He’s found his spot and he’s producing. The scary thing (for the rest of the league that is) is that this line is underperforming their production a little bit and could be even more dangerous and scary to the opposition going forward.

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