CRANBERRY, Pa. – As the Pittsburgh Penguins were struggling to find their identity early in the regular season, defenseman Trevor Daley and forward Carl Hagelin were having problems finding their roles with a new team.
Daley was with the Chicago Blackhawks but wasn’t being used the way he had been for most of his 756 games with the Dallas Stars. Hagelin, with the Anaheim Ducks, was trying to figure out how to make his speed game work in the more physical Western Conference.
Maybe it eventually would have clicked for Daley and Hagelin. Maybe they eventually would have helped the Blackhawks and Ducks go deeper in the Stanley Cup Playoffs than the first round.
Without them in Pittsburgh, it’s hard to imagine the Penguins would be on the brink of advancing to the Eastern Conference Final.
The speed Daley and Hagelin brought to the lineup is a big reason why.
“I could tell once we got our feet under us [after the Penguins acquired Daley and Hagelin] that we were starting to play a faster game,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “Everything was coming together.”
Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford identifies the trade for Daley as the move that gave the Penguins the baseline for their identity. Rutherford acquired Daley for defenseman Rob Scuderi on Dec. 14, the same day Mike Sullivan coached his first game, coincidentally against the Capitals.
Daley’s skating speed was a welcome addition, and certainly a massive change from Scuderi’s stay-at-home style.
Getting to Pittsburgh was a welcome change for Daley, who said he loved everything about Chicago except actually stepping on the ice to play for the Blackhawks. Daley was miscast in Chicago and feels he was never given an opportunity.
“I wish I knew (why it didn’t work),” Daley said. “Things were still going pretty well there with the team, and I just didn’t think things would change.”
Had Daley been given a chance, he likely would have filled out the Blackhawks’ top-two defense pairs, giving them the depth they needed but were lacking in their first-round series loss to the St. Louis Blues. Not using him properly was a miss for Chicago.
Putting him in the right situation became a massive hit for the Penguins, with no better example than Daley’s performance in Game 4, when Pittsburgh had to play without Kris Letang (suspended) and Olli Maatta (injured).
Daley played 28:41 with an assist and a plus-3 rating in Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime win against the Capitals.
“He was unbelievable,” defenseman Ian Cole said.
A month after Daley arrived, with the Penguins attempting to find their identity and Sullivan trying to figure out the hand he was dealt, Rutherford acquired Hagelin from the Ducks for forward David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening.
Pittsburgh was 5-6-4 from the day it acquired Daley to the day it got Hagelin. But instead of having Perron, who plays a slower, power game, the Penguins had Hagelin and all of his speed.
“He makes you uncomfortable whenever he’s on the ice,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “As a defenseman, he is a player that can make you feel slow as soon as you take a wrong angle.”
Hagelin arrived with confidence. He felt his last eight games in Anaheim were his best, which is why the trade surprised him. The first person to call him was Sullivan, who was his assistant coach with the New York Rangers during his first two seasons in the NHL.
“It gave me an at-home feeling,” Hagelin said. “I knew what to expect.”
Much like Daley, who was put into a top-four role immediately, Hagelin was given significant responsibility right away. On Jan. 17, he played his first game on a line with Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel. The Penguins defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 5-0.
“Obviously his biggest asset is his foot speed, but I think an underrated asset that he has is his hockey sense,” Sullivan said of Hagelin. “He sees the game very well on both sides of the puck. He helps us in defensive situations as well as offensive situations. I felt strongly when we got him that he’s a guy that has the ability to play with top players, because of his hockey sense.”
Hagelin had 27 points in 37 regular-season games with the Penguins. He was moved to a line with Nick Bonino and Kessel in mid-March, and it has been Pittsburgh’s most consistent since. Bonino, Hagelin and Kessel have combined for 22 points in nine playoff games.
The Penguins went 28-10-1 after acquiring Hagelin, including 14-2-0 in their last 16 games of the regular season. Pittsburgh is 21-4-0 in its past 25 games counting the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins are playing to their identity, something they wouldn’t have found without Daley and Hagelin.
“We got two players that have really fit into this group,” Sullivan said. “Their performance on the ice as far as what they bring to our team and how they help us win speaks for itself.”