The Buffalo Sabres selected Brandon Hagel in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. But, they did not sign him. After putting up 177 points in 193 games with the Red Deer Rebels in his first three seasons in the WHL, Hagel did eventually sign with the opportunistic Chicago Blackhawks at the end of October in 2018.
In his final season with Red Deer, Hagel tallied 41 goals and 102 points to finish fourth in points in the WHL. Since then, the Alberta native has worked his way into the forefront of the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect system, as he is on pace for one of the most prolific rookie scoring seasons in Rockford IceHogs AHL franchise history.
Hagel’s stock on the rise with IceHogs
This should come as no surprise to those that know Hagel’s game. After finishing with 279 points in 259 WHL games, Hagel was expected to produce points at the professional level.
“Coming in last year for eight games and getting some touches in was good for me,” Hagel said about joining the IceHogs last season. “Got to come here and get used to the people and the players, so when I came back this year, I knew more of what to expect and that allows me to play the way I need to play.”
Hagel’s comfort level with the IceHogs has translated into a high-energy style of play that has been rewarded by head coach Derek King this season, affording Hagel meaningful ice time and opportunities on both the power play and the penalty kill.
For a rookie coming into the professional ranks, the transition from junior hockey can take a physical toll on a young player. But, with his style of play, Hagel has found it easier than most to make the jump to the next level.
“There’s a lot of new things you learn through recovery and nutrition and how important that is,” Hagel said. “As a rookie, you’re kind of on your own now, living on your own, so you have to figure things out now for yourself. We have a great leadership group on this team that is really on top of those things, so that has made my transition as easy as it can be.”
Only 3 #IceHogs have scored 20+ goals in their rookie season since 07-08:
Matthew Highmore (24)
Tyler Sikura (23)
Tanner Kero (20)
Brandon Hagel has 17 goals through 45 games this season. He is on pace for 28 goals, which would be the highest total since 2012-13 (30, Morin) #AHL https://t.co/3f8FPZ6vLa
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) February 5, 2020
What may be a surprise to IceHogs and Blackhawks fans alike are both Hagel’s work ethic and skills away from the puck.
His ability to put up points, as well as apply pressure defensively, kill penalties and play with an edge has allowed him to separate himself from the pack in the Blackhawks’ prospect system. His work this season did not go unnoticed by the parent club and Hagel received his first NHL recall in January.
“I don’t feel like my work away from the puck is underrated,” Hagel said. “People notice that and it’s continued to be a part of my game as a whole. My work ethic is the No. 1 thing that I have to focus on. Obviously, people notice it and I’m putting up numbers, too, so that always helps.”
While he did not get to make his full NHL debut during his first NHL recall, Hagel still took away a vote of confidence from the Blackhawks organization after getting the opportunity to learn from the pros in Chicago.
“It was nice just to even go up there and just get comfortable around the guys and staff,” Hagel said. “Everyone was so welcoming and that made it easier for me to do what I needed when I was up there, especially when it’s your first time up and you don’t really know what to expect. It’s just good to know what I have to do to get back there and hopefully get that opportunity again.”
On a roster that began the season so inexperienced, and has endured a heavy amount of turnover due to injuries and recalls, Hagel has been one of the most consistent offensive factors for the IceHogs.
“There’s always going to be change,” Hagel said. “We’ve been through a lot of it this year and it’s just one of those things that you have to let it roll. Can’t think about it too much and stick to your game.”
Hagel and the IceHogs went through a difficult month of January, which snowballed from an equally difficult end of December. Going 3–14–2 from Dec. 21 to Feb. 1, the IceHogs have fallen from second in the AHL Central Division to sixth. While somehow keeping within striking distance of a Calder Cup Playoff spot through that stretch, the IceHogs have won back-to-back games heading into their next contest on Saturday and regained their confidence.
Rockford will need to continue to lean on Hagel’s offensive production, which has him third on the team with 25 points and leading the way with 17 goals this season. Hagel’s 17 tallies rank in a tie for fourth among rookies scorers and he is on pace for 28 goals this season, which would set the IceHogs’ AHL franchise record for rookies.