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Analyzing the Brandon Hagel Trade

Let’s take a look at what Chicago lost and gained with their first big trade of the season.

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Chicago Blackhawks v Ottawa Senators Photo by Chris Tanouye/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks made their first major move Friday ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline trading Brandon Hagel to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a package of first-round picks and young players.

The trade was controversial, and fans either loved it or they hated it with no real middle ground. For one group, the haul for Hagel seems like a lot, and collecting first-round picks is considered an excellent way to jump start a rebuild, and they got some young reclamation project players as a bonus. For the other group, Hagel is the type of player that a team should keep when rebuilding since he’s a young, fast, skilled player that’s good in the locker room.

So which group is right?

Honestly, only time will tell, but we can look more into the positives and negatives of this Hagel trade.

Trading Hagel

Let’s start with Hagel, because a lot of the fan reactions revolve around how much he was a fan-favorite, but one point that needs to be understood: there is a chance this is the highest Hagel’s trade value will ever be, and the Blackhawks might be getting what they can for him before he possibly regresses. This has to be something the Blackhawks are concerned about considering they missed on moving other young players — like Dominik Kubalik — before a decline in performance means they have little value currently.

Yes, Hagel is still young at only 23, but he’s also shooting at an unsustainable 22.3 percent this season. He’s always been a bit more of a playmaker — not necessarily creative but highly efficient — but it’s not known if his playmaking could compensate for the inevitable shooting percentage regression in a way to keep his point at 0.67 rate per game. It’s absolutely suspect if Hagel will be able to repeat this season’s success with the Blackhawks so moving him while the iron is hot seems like a good idea.

Edit to add: The “with the Blackhawks” part is key in that sentence — Hagel would need to increase his shot volume a good deal to achieve a similar goals total with a lower shooting percentage, something unlikely with a low shot possession team like the Blackhawks. With the Lightning, it very well could be possible — maybe not 30 goals like this season, but 20 could definitely be doable.

Conversely, the argument that Hagel is the type of player that should be kept for a rebuild does have merit: he’s young, he’s on a great contract for another two seasons, and he’s complimentary to many roles so he can slide up and down the line-up. Even if Hagel’s production declined next season, as it likely would have, he does impact the game even when not producing thanks to his forechecking, puck skills, and speed. Hagel is one of those players who always looks like the hardest worker on the ice and that hard work typically translates on the scorecard and off in tangible ways. Those types of players are hard to come by — the Blackhawks have only really had one other over the last decade in Andrew Shaw — so it’s understandable why so many would want to keep a young utility spark plug player like Hagel around during a rebuild.

The Return

It’s undeniable that first-round draft picks are viewed as the holy grail of picks, and there is some merit in that belief because picking higher can have obvious advantages. However, there is a huge discrepancy in value between the top, middle, and bottom of the first round — more than any other round by far — so the lower the first-round pick, the less shiny that grail actually is.

The general value of late first-round picks — which is where these picks from the Lightning are likely going to be for the next two seasons barring catastrophe — are overrated by the general public. There are a lot of models about evaluating draft pick value — like Michael Schuckers’ model from 2011 (revisited in 2016) is based on NHL games played and average time on ice, Eric Tulsky’s model from 2013 is based on market place value, and Dom Luszczyszyn’s model from 2020 based on game score (GSVA) — but they ultimately all say the same thing: draft pick value drops exponentially.

Technically speaking, a late first-round pick is closer in value to a third-round pick than a top-10 pick. The probability of them impacting the NHL — much less becoming a middle-six player of Hagel’s caliber is pretty low — is something like 20 percent or lower, depending on where actually the pick falls.

However, it’s important to note that the quantity of picks does increase that likelihood of selecting someone who could exceed inherent pick value. It’s not actually double — there’s more fancy math to get actual probability percentage than I’m willing to do right now — but volume of pick selection has been proven to be key when quality of the pick(s) is lower. So the fact that Davidson was able to secure multiple first-round picks is more ideal than just a single one, even if they’re from drafts in more distant years. And it is always possible to find gems in the those latter spots in the first round — David Pastrňák is the most commonly used example — it’s just more rare, so two chances at it is better than not.

The fact that the two first-round picks are top-10 protected is annoying, though. However unlikely it is the Lightning would land in the bottom 10 of the league’s standings, if it did happen, the Blackhawks may not select a player until 2024 or 2025, and then there’s the two or more years of development before they’d impact the NHL — if they work out. Not ideal, even in a long-haul rebuild.

In my opinion, the most interesting component to the trade are the players the Blackhawks acquired in return, if only because they’re more realized products. Some fans may be wondering why the Blackhawks traded for two players who are the same age or slightly older than Hagel, just much less proven — but it’s less about the players themselves and more about the quantity of them, similar to the picks. The number of players makes it more valuable than the players themselves alone because there’s a greater chance of one of them being useful to the Blackhawks. Obviously there has to be some upside to the players, but it’s always about quantity impacting probability, baby.

It’s not unlike the philosophy behind the Nick Schmaltz for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini trade that Stan Bowman made in 2018. Schmaltz was the proven player — albeit going through a slump — that got a quantity over quality return in reclamation projects. If the Blackhawks don’t think they’ll be competitive during the next two years before Hagel’s contract is less team-friendly, then it’s worth taking a chance on two young players blossoming in a new environment. It’s a solid strategy considering how little in the cupboard the Blackhawks have in terms of potential quality players.

So, who exactly are Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk? In limited NHL playing time, they’ve been decent two-way forwards with strong defensive results but who have yet to come close to the offensive output they both showed in juniors. There’s still promise with both players — and Blackhawks fans will be happy they’re excellent on the forecheck, something Chicago has struggled with for years now — but it’s been a disappointing first NHL season for them so far, especially after being point-per-game players or better with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL last season.

But some that is to be expected based on their lack of NHL experience and their role on the Lightning: not only are growing pains common in rookie seasons, Raddysh and Katchouk were on one of the deepest teams in the league and regulated to the fourth-line as a result. With the Blackhawks, the two young players should have more of an opportunity to play above a checking-line role and with more offensively-skewed players. And as Blackhawks fans know from watching Strome this season, player utilization can make a huge difference in terms of offensive results for that player. See also: Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, and more.

Obviously the downside is that neither player ever figures out how to contribute offensively in the NHL, something the Blackhawks desperately need. Chicago has only one prospect — Lukas Reichel — that is projected be at least second-line quality in terms of production, so picking up two players with little to no offensive results so far in the NHL is a risk. It’s great that they’re both solid defensively, but the fact remains: the Blackhawks need offense.

So while Blackhawks fans may not be excited about more reclamation projects, the Blackhawks are obviously hoping a change of scenery works wonders for the Raddysh and Katchouk even if it’s a risk that may not pan out.

And two last interesting — at least to me — notes about Raddysh and Katchouk: they have been best friends since they were children so having a bond like that could be beneficial to them making it in the NHL, and Raddysh is also familiar with Alex DeBrincat and Strome from their Erie Otters days.

Conclusion:

As stated above, this isn’t the type of deal that should be judged completely immediately. I know that’s hard to do — and I’ve even voiced my own concerns about it — but the variables are a little too unknown as this time to come to a full conclusion on how this deal will work out for the Blackhawks. Because ultimately while Hagel would be useful during a rebuild, it’s possible that the Blackhawks are maximizing the highest return for him before his contract stops being a bargain by amassing assets that align with the long-term rebuild. Personally, I preferred to keep Hagel for the rebuild, but it’s also understandable why this package of picks and players was enticing to Davidson and the Blackhawks.

However it turns out, Hagel will be missed, but as fans, we have hope that this is the first step into rebuilding the Blackhawks back into a contender — even if we can’t see path completely yet.