Carl Hagelin, the key that unlocked Penguins’ HBK Line success

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PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 10: Carl Hagelin #62 of the Pittsburgh Penguins prepares for warmups prior to the game against the Washington Capitals in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 10, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
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Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is a finalist for the 2015-16 NHL’s General Manager of the Year Award.

Usually, these nominations are nonsense: How can one properly judge a team’s transactions without the benefit of hindsight, sometimes years’ worth? But in Rutherford’s case, you can point to a series of trades and decisions that made the Penguins demonstrably better this season: Firing Mike Johnston and promoting Mike Sullivan; trading for defenseman Trevor Daley; and constructing one of the playoffs’ most effective lines through trades, acquiring center Nick Bonino, winger Phil Kessel and winger Carl Hagelin.

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Increasingly, it’s that last name that might be the key acquisition. He doesn’t have the finish of Kessel – or on some breakaways, a finish at all – or the two-way game at center like Bonino, but he has blazing speed that sets the tempo for the HBK Line (perfect name, for the record) and has unlocked the lethal sniper in Kessel that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could not, for whatever reason.

(Apparently, the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels is planning on some sort of surprise for Game 5. HBK at a Penguins game to watch the HBK line is what Yinzer Shangri-la looks like.)

“I think his speed jumps out at everybody.  That's -- obviously, his ultimate competitive advantage is his foot speed. He chases pucks down and forces turnovers and creates a lot of opportunity for his line through that foot speed,” said coach Mike Sullivan after the Penguins’ dominating 4-2 win in Game 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“But what I really have always liked about him is he has -- his hockey sense is very underrated, and that's, in my opinion, what allows him to play with top players. [It’s] not only when he forces turnovers or chases a puck down, he has the hockey sense and the vision and the awareness to make that next play. That's so important to creating an opportunity for his line.”

That, of course, speaks to the puck support we’ve seen from Hagelin and his linemates on offensive chances.

Look at this work by Hagelin on his Game 3 goal:

Joining the rush, and then smartly ducking in back of the Lightning defensemen. Kessel knows he has him, so he just fires the puck – it’s either going in, getting gobbled up or that rebound is sitting pretty for Hagelin.

On Kessel’s goal, watch the first step from Hagelin here to keep the cycle going:

Bonino does the hard work here, but not only does Hagelin keep the puck alive but he draws two defenders to the boards and creates that pocket for Kessel to get his snipe on.

These guys have been doing it all playoffs long. The way this line thrived against the Washington Capitals was the reason I favored them in the Eastern Conference Final: You can D-up Sidney Crosby and you can D-up Evgeni Malkin, but when a third scoring option is rolling like the HBK Line, you can’t cover’em all.

Kessel now has 16 points in 14 games, tied for first in the postseason with nine goals. The sight of this man, whom the Toronto media treated like a fat kid too lazy to reach up for a open cookie jar, raising the Conn Smythe is now a possibility.

Hagelin has five goals and six assists in 14 games, including six points in his last four games. His affect on Kessel is well-quantified: In the regular season, Kessel had a 57.9 Corsi percentage (5 on 5) with him and 51.5 percent without him; his goals-for average (goals for divided by goals for plus goals against) went from a 51.0 percent without him to a 65.1 percent with Hagelin on the ice.

He was acquired for David Perron and Adam Clendening on Jan. 16, in the first year of a four-year deal that gives the Penguins a $4 million cap hit. Perron had faded with the Penguins; Hagelin never really cracked the code with the Anaheim Ducks after they acquired him.

Rutherford saw a chance to increase the Penguins’ team speed for a coach whose system demands it.

“His speed kind of elevates other players’ speed. So it becomes contagious. We have other speed guys. We know how Sid can go and some of these other guys. But it just seemed that when Hagelin and Daley came in, the rest of the (team) speed came with it, too,” said Rutherford to the Sporting News.

Sullivan saw a chance to reunite with a player he trusts.

“Obviously, I had a prior relationship with Haggy. Knew him pretty well as a player and as a person. I share that information with Jim, but ultimately, Jim's the guy that makes that call,” he said. “We all had input into those personnel decisions. Since I've been here, Jim is really good about trying to utilize all the resources around him to try to help him make the best decision. So if any of us have knowledge of players, we certainly try to share that so that he can make the best decisions for the organization.”

Hagelin’s not a perfect player. As Bruce Boudreau once told me as the Ducks acquired him, Hagelin earns breakaways with his speed but “too bad he can't finish worth a damn."

But you can be an imperfect player and be perfect for a specific team, and that’s what we’re seeing with Hagelin here. Kessel’s like a champion thoroughbred that needed a pacesetter, and that’s what Hagelin provides. And because he’s provided it, the Pittsburgh Penguins are two wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.

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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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