While teams in the American Hockey League are enjoying a short break for the holidays, Philadelphia Flyers defensive prospect Robert Hagg is gearing up for his third appearance with Team Sweden at the 2015 U20 World Junior Championship, which gets underway on Friday in Montreal and Toronto.
After back-to-back silver medals for Sweden in the tournament the last two years, Hagg was adamant that he wasn’t playing for second place for a third straight year – his final year of eligibility to participate in the tournament for the top hockey prospects around the world under 20 years of age.
“If I get another silver medal I’m probably going to, like, quit hockey or something,” Hagg joked after the Phantoms 5-3 win over Binghamton on December 17th. “I definitely don’t want a silver medal again. I played in two finals and lost both of them,” he added.
Hagg has had his fair share of growing pains so far in his first full season of pro hockey in North America, but is definitely looking forward to playing for his country in an international event.
“It’s going to be great to play for Sweden in Canada,” Hagg said after a recent Lehigh Valley Phantoms game. “I heard it’s sold out almost every game. It’s going to be pretty big.”
The 19-year-old Swedish defenseman has tallied 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) in 28 games with the Phantoms so far this season. While his play with the puck has been acceptable, it’s his play in the defensive zone and away from the puck at the pro-level that needs improvement and has both Hagg and Phantoms head coach Terry Murray wanting more.
“I think now that he’s starting the year off, it’s really long. He’s seen 10 games last year and now he’s seeing, wow, this is really going to to go to April,” Murray said of Hagg, pointing out, “He seemed to have stepped back in his intensity and got a little casual in his play, kind of feeling his way around the league when I need to see him starting to initiate, take charge and do the things at a high level of play. Just more assertive overall with his emotional game.”
Hagg also acknowledged the fact that he’s still a long ways away from being an NHL defenseman and needs to work on his overall play in his own zone.
“I want to be more aggressive in my D-zone,” Hagg said. “Close the gap quicker. I just try to play a simple game, put up the puck to the forwards and play as simple as I can in my own zone.”
Hagg will miss several AHL games with the Phantoms while participating in the WJC, much to the displeasure of Murray.
“I’ve always had a tough time comprehending a player who is playing pro hockey – playing 25 minutes a night – wanting to play somewhere else (in junior),” Murray said. “I don’t like it, that’s just my opinion. I’d rather he play here, but he’s going to go play and we’ll get him back in early January and get him back in the lineup.”
Murray isn’t the only one who doesn’t like or want one of his players missing pro hockey development time. In fact, some NHL teams have decided not to allow eligible players to participate in the tournament.
The Washington Capitals aren’t releasing forward Andre Burakovsky to play for Sweden at the upcoming World Juniors, as is the case with the Vancouver Canucks in not releasing Bo Horvat to play for Team Canada.
Regardless, Hagg will be heavily relied upon by Team Sweden in the hopes that the third time’s the charm for them at the WJC. He will face-off against another Philadelphia Flyers defensive prospect in Samuel Morin when Sweden plays Canada.
Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @TonyAndrock_TCG