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The most intriguing player in Lightning training camp

He isn’t the most important, but if finds his role in camp, it will be a huge boost for the team

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NHL: JUN 26 Stanley Cup Finals - Game six - Avalanche at Lightning Photo by Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire

The original title of this article, in fact the original concept overall, was “Why Brandon Hagel is the most important player for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season”. Upon reflection, he’s not. We all know he’s not. The most important player for the Tampa Bay Lightning is Andrei Vasilevskiy. It always has been, and it will always will be until his contract is over after the 2027-28 season. No Vasy - No Cup. That being said, Brandon Hagel could be the key cog in making the Lightning offense work this season.

As one of the big pick-ups at the trade deadline there was a lot expected of the 24-year-old who had potted 21 goals in 55 games for a bad Chicago hockey club. The Lightning paid a hefty price to pry him out of the Windy City, dealing Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, and two conditional first-round picks for him. Did he live up to those expectations? Kind of. The offensive production wasn’t at the level he generated with Chicago, but that was expected as he went from playing on the top line to more of a middle-six role with the Lightning. He also saw his power play time drop to literally 0 minutes after averaging about two minutes a game with Chicago.

So it’s understandable that his scoring rates dropped a little when he joined the Bolts. Throw in the adjustment period that comes along with transitioning teams and you can see why his goal rate was slashed almost in half (1.3 G/60 with Chicago and 0.8 G/60 with Tampa Bay). Now, with 45 games under his belt with the Lightning when you include the postseason, a summer off, and a full training camp with the team he should be a little better acclimated.

While his offense wasn’t at the same level as it was with the Chicago hockey club, in terms of puck possession he did exactly what the Lightning wanted him to do. In 22 regular season games with the Bolts Hagel posted a shot attempt share of 54.1% (compared to 48.89% with Chicago) and an expected goal share of 52.33% (44.94% with Chicago). It’s always a plus when you see those numbers above the 50% mark.

His shot attempt share dipped a bit in the playoffs (48.90%) as did a lot of the Lightning players (only Riley Nash, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn posted positive shot share numbers) but his expected goals was right around the same mark that he posted in the regular season with the Lightning (52.53%). So, he fell inline with what the Lightning wanted him to do and it can be argued that he was just a shade unlucky when it came to actually scoring goals. Plus, despite not having any mention in the post-playoff laundry list of injuries suffered by the team, he was definitely dealing with some sort of malady that seemed to affect his speed on the ice.

Though he is a left-wing by trade, he spent most of last year on the right side, opposite Alex Killorn with Anthony Cirelli in the middle (that is true of the regular season and playoffs). In the first line rushes of training camp this season (don’t read too much into day one on the ice, don’t ready too much into day one on the ice, don’t ready too much into day one on the ice) he was back on the right side with Nick Paul in the middle and Alex Killorn on the left side.

As of right now that would be the nominal second line with Coach Cooper going full bore with a first line of Steven Stamkos - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov. Herein lies the problem of not re-signing Ondrej Palat. The Lightning will need someone to step up and provide the offense (18 goals, 31 assists) that Palat provided last season. They will also need that to come from a second line. Depth has always been a key factor for their success. If the top line is in a funk, Coach Cooper has always had the option to mix things up or rely on the second or third lines to find the goals. With Palat off in New Jersey and Anthony Cirelli out until November or December, that depth has thinned out. Also, expect a bit of a regression from Alex Killorn’s career season.

The Lightning will need Hagel or Nick Paul to fill that gap. One of them has to step up and take a top-six role and provide consistent offense. The bottom six will be fine. The School Bus Line of Pat Maroon - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Corey Perry will do what they do while there are plenty of pieces that fit into a third line with Ross Colton, Vlad Namestnikov, Cole Koepke, Gemel Smith, Paul, and others suited for that role.

If Hagel stays on the right side and gives the Lightning a scoring option on the second line that’s wonderful. He has the potential to put up 20 goals even with minimal power play time and that is valuable production coming from a second-line forward. It would also take some pressure off the top line if opponents need to focus a little on other players on the ice.

However, what if Hagel flips back to the left side of the ice and claims a spot on the top line with Point and Kucherov? In Chicago he played with a similar playmaker as Kucherov in Patrick Kane and they were on the ice for 12 goals together at 5v5 last season. If Hagel can claim that role, it also allows Coach Cooper to drop Stamkos down to his natural position in the middle of the ice on the second line and frees The Captain up from some of the tougher defensive pairings.

We pretty much know what we’re getting out of the rest of the team if they stay healthy. Stamkos and Point will be in the 30 to 40 goal range, Kucherov will work his magic on the way to another 100+ point season, Killorn will chip in his 40 points, etc. Hagel, and to a lesser degree Nick Paul, are the big questions marks in regards to their production. If Hagel can maintain the possession stats that we saw last season with the Bolts, while adding the goal production he had Chicago, then a lot of offensive questions will be answered for the team and they will keep their spot among the elite of the Eastern Conference.