PITTSBURGH — The California tan is beginning to fade, but Carl Hagelin feels welcome in the Steel City, where a heated rivalry with the Rangers resumed on Wednesday.
Drafted by the Rangers in 2007, the speedy Swede played 339 games, including 73 playoff games, with the Blueshirts before being shipped to the Anaheim Ducks during the NHL draft last June in order to trim salary. He signed a four-year, $16-million contract and bought a place in Newport Beach.
But his time in the sun ended abruptly.
On Jan. 18, Hagelin was traded to Pittsburgh, a move that stunned him.
“It was still another month and a half to the trading deadline, so you weren’t really thinking about it; I was surprised for sure,” Hagelin said Wednesday. “I had just settled in. I started feeling good around Christmas, right when I got back from New York [the Ducks lost, 3-2, in overtime to the Rangers on Dec. 22], started doing what I can do as a player, for six or eight games, and then I got traded. ’’
The landing was softer than expected in Pittsburgh, in large part because of Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, who was John Tortorella’s lone assistant with the Rangers.
“Him and Torts were the two coaches I had coming into the league, so it brings me back to those days. I’m happy he wanted me here,” Hagelin said. “He just wanted me to play my game; hearing that from him and getting confidence from him has helped me in getting into the team right away. The league has changed a little in four or five years, the systems might be a little different, but what he expects from certain guys is similar.”
“I felt strongly based on my experience with Haggy that he would be a good fit here,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “When you look at the core players, their competitive advantage is their speed; Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Letang, those guys, they all want to play a fast game. I thought Carl, his foot speed, would complement that group.”
So far, so good. In his first nine games with the Penguins, Hagelin had a goal and five assists.
Initially, he said was wary about the Penguins. “You start hating a team when you play them that many times, especially in the playoffs,” he said. That perception has changed. “There’s a lot of great guys, similar to New York.” In fact, he was planning to offer some tips to his latest teammates before Wednesday’s game.
“It’s small things that I can let them know about,” he said. “With all the video and all the scouting that goes on now, most teams know what the other teams are doing, but there’s tendencies of certain players that I know might help.”
Hagelin, 27, remains close with some Rangers, especially Mats Zuccarello, the Norwegian winger with whom he played in the AHL and for three seasons at the Garden. When Zuccarello was struck in the head by a shot last April 24 that left him in intensive care with a skull fracture and bleeding on the brain, Hagelin and Derick Brassard were the first teammates to see him, during an emotional visit to the hospital.
“A lot of those guys are some of my best friends, but this game’s not at MSG,” he said, “so it’s not as special as it was [in December],” when he received a standing ovation from the crowd.
How about when he scored the game-winner against Anaheim two nights ago, someone asked.
“That,” he said with a grin, “felt good for sure.”