Dave Hakstol jokes about as often as he calls out a player. Which is to say rarely, if at all. But after rookie Robert Hagg finally scored in Wednesday night's 4-3 victory over Detroit, the Flyers coach noted how just a day earlier, a scrum of reporters had surrounded Hagg to ask him about his lack of goals.
"I wish you guys would have asked him about that maybe a month ago." Hakstol deadpanned.
Hagg's slapshot in the later stages of the second period found the back of the net to tie a game the Flyers seemed intent on losing.
The truth is that we had asked him, and two weeks ago too, and even after the first few games of the season. The truth, too, is that Hagg smiled affably each time, insisting it was not something he thought much about.
His narrative, shared as far back as rookie camp and continued throughout training camp, was that the offensive game he displayed when catching eyes in Sweden had to be sacrificed — or at least compromised — to reach this level.
Maybe it would return some day, he said. But for now, he would concentrate on proper positioning and separating players from pucks, whether through his thick frame or his deft stick.
"Tonight, I got a goal, and of course that's fun," said Hagg. "[Play] Good defense first, and the rest will come."
No, that's not a rhyme he was taught by Hakstol or a well-meaning assistant. It was an accident, which is how he tried to view his first NHL goal.
"You get confidence after scoring a goal, absolutely," he said. "But still, I just try to focus on playing my own game and not get carried away."
Hagg's game has been a revelation this season. When camp began in September, he appeared the odd-man out in a derby of rookie defensive candidates vying for the two open spots created by the departures of Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz.
Travis Sanheim was big and fluid and an offensive force. Samuel Morin was big and intimidating at 6-foot-7, just what the Flyers' smallish defense seemed to need. But Hagg was the steadiest of the three from Day 1.
Through his positioning, team-leading 117 hits and a gaudy plus-minus number that now sits at 14, Hagg has built a level of trust with his teammates and his coach not unlike the confidence Ivan Provorov built through his rookie campaign.
"You know what you're going to get from him every night," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said after Wednesday's game. "For a first-year guy, he plays like he's 30 years old. He acts like it, too. It's good to see him get rewarded. He happened to score a big goal for us tonight, but his game was exactly the same as what it's been the majority of the last month, month and a half."
Which brings us to the other coming-out party Wednesday. On Tuesday, in a rare public criticism of a player, Hakstol said this of Nolan Patrick, the second pick in June's draft:
"Sometimes you have to create your own time and space by moving your feet. The play can close in pretty quickly on you if you're stationary, or you're not moving, not going north. And I think that's an adjustment every young player makes. Especially Nolan as a centerman. He's very smart. He knows what's around him. There are times where he gets the puck in the middle of the ice, and he needs to work at a little higher pace in order to create that extra half-second or second that he needs to make the next play."
Patrick won nine of 12 faceoffs Wednesday night, including an early offensive-zone faceoff that led to Radko Gudas' blast and Dale Weise's deft wraparound goal off the rebound.
Weise has been Patrick's lawyer of late, noting an increase in the 19-year-old's confidence, compete level, and skating. He also knows Patrick's emergence affects his ice time.
"Hak's got a little more trust on him in the D zone," Weise said. "So it gets us out there a little more."
On Wednesday, that equated to almost 11 minutes of ice time. With less than three minutes to go and the Flyers nursing a one-goal lead, Patrick, Weise, and Jordan Weal went over the boards, a clear vote of confidence in them.
"I think we are coming on," Weise said of his line. "I think it has a lot to do with Patty… . I thought he was unbelievable in the circle tonight. He is winning faceoffs. He is controlling the play in the middle of the ice. I think he is getting a little more comfortable out there. Starting to hang onto it a little more. So, if we are going to have success, it's going to run through him."
Hakstol said Patrick has been building toward a performance like that over the last few games.