Throughout this season’s early goings, Robert Hagg has stood out as one of the most consistent and effective defensemen in the Buffalo Sabres lineup. Last night, the big Swedish defender was at it again, crushing Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos behind the Sabres’ net, then cleaning out Tampa Bay centreman, Anthony Cirelli, from the blue paint to ward off a quality scoring threat.
The hits and the gritty defense have been a part of Hagg’s game since he entered the NHL during the 2016-17 season with Philadelphia. Originally a 2013 second round draft pick of the Flyers, the 6’2” Hagg has become known for his hard checks and stay at home style of defense, which was one of the reasons he was part of a trade package that came to Buffalo in return for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
It’s been a small sample size thus far, but a quick look at Buffalo’s stat sheet shows Hagg leading the Sabres in all of the columns one would expect for a player of his ilk. In six games, Hagg is tops on the team in hits (16) and blocked shots (15) all while staying out of the penalty box with only one minor call on his record. Impressive work for a player who excels in the rougher areas of the game. Clearly Hagg picks his spots well, only stepping up to clock a player when the time is right and therefore does not get caught out of position too often. To that point, his checking game very much reminds me of the notorious Red Wings hitter, Niklas Kronwall, who was always good for 1 or 2 solid, if not huge, hits per game.
As much as I expected Hagg to be tops in these categories, what I’ve been admittedly very impressed with has been his passing and decision making.
Head Coach Don Granato has regularly paired Hagg with Mark Pysyk this season and the two have displayed good chemistry as a blueline tandem. Hagg has complimented Pysyk’s steady, 2-way game with his own brand of defense, namely hitting hard, blocking shots and mixing it up in front of the net. Aside from the rough stuff, Hagg has been impressive in consistently making a good first pass and taking whatever open ice is given to him in order to quickly transition the puck out of the Sabres’ zone. This was on full display Monday night with Hagg even picking up an assist on Olofsson’s first period goal.
After receiving a nice pass from Pysyk, Hagg skated up through center ice and sent a heady pass to Tage Thompson who was cruising down the left wing. Thompson fired off a hard wrist shot that rebounded to a charging Olofsson for a goal. Later in the game, a well-deserved 195 foot empty net goal rounded out a solid effort from the Sabres D-man, who finished a +3 for the night.
While not noted for his offense, it’s clear that Hagg has enough polish to help his teammates move the puck up ice. To this point, his best year offensively was 2018-19 when he scored 20 points in a full 82 game card wearing orange and black.
Point totals aside, Hagg has also been logging ice time at a solid clip, playing an average of 18:40 per game which is good for 5th on the team. He and Pysyk have often been tasked with playing hard minutes against opposing team’s top lines. As impressive, if not more, he is first on the team in penalty kill-playing time with 19:24 minutes on a Sabres’ P.K. unit that ranks 7th in the NHL with an 87.5% accuracy.
Hagg is only 26 years old and on the last year of a 2 year, $3.2 million dollar deal which counts at $1.6 million AAV against the cap (not that the Sabres are anywhere near the top of the salary cap). Next year he will be an unrestricted free agent, so the Sabres will have to make a decision on whether or not to re-sign him after this season. So far, in my opinion, Hagg has proven to be a very valuable part of this lineup. It’s tough to price out the intangible value that Hagg adds to a team, but given the reputation the Sabres are starting to build, if I’m GM Kevyn Adams, I’d put Robert Hagg high on my shopping list.