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Carl Hagelin leads crop of Penguins players in contract years

October 12, 2018

In hockey culture, where players almost fanatically profess a team-first attitude and rarely seek individual attention, it’s probably not cool to admit it.

Facing reality, though, it’s hard to ignore.

Players in the final year of their contract often find an extra gear in their games.

At age 41, Matt Cullen has been around too long to bother with polite talk about players being motivated only by the allure of winning championships and their love of the sport.

If some of his teammates are giving all they’ve got, in part, because they want their next contract to be bigger than the last one, he has zero problem with that.

“One hundred percent,” said Cullen, who is technically in a contract year himself. “However you can get a great year out of a player, you take it, right? That’s going to translate into individual success, but even more importantly, into team success. You’ll take that any time.”

When the Penguins opened their season Thursday night against Washington, nine of the 23 players on the roster were in the final year of their contracts. Seven will be unrestricted free agents next summer.

Eight or nine months from now, that situation will turn general manager Jim Rutherford into a very busy man. He’ll have to hammer out a new deal for blossoming scoring star Jake Guentzel and figure out what to do at center, where Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan, Derek Grant and Cullen are set to hit the open market.

He’ll also have to figure out whether winger Carl Hagelin fits into the team’s future plans, which could be the most interesting free-agent case of all.

When the Penguins traded for Hagelin in January 2016, some were concerned the four-year, $16 million contract he signed with Anaheim the previous July would end up an albatross before it expired.

It’s been anything but. Hagelin’s arrival signaled the transition to a speed game under coach Mike Sullivan. He was a key contributor to two Stanley Cup championship teams.

It’s hard to value Hagelin’s contributions precisely because they’re not easy to quantify on the stat sheet.

How much is speed on the forecheck worth? What’s the compensation schedule for meshing on a line with superstar talents Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel?

“I take a little more defensive responsibility,” Hagelin said. “That doesn’t mean I’m always the first guy back, doing all the dirty work in our end. It just means getting to pucks, being first on the forecheck, having a good stick to create turnovers.

“I embrace that role. You don’t get to play with good players if you’re just good defensively. You have to be able to make plays and see the ice out there.”

For the record, when it comes to discussing playing in a contract year, Hagelin subscribes to a team-first philosophy.

The last time he was in a walk year, he put up 17 goals and 35 points in 82 games with the New York Rangers in 2014-15. It was a good year, but not outside the range of statistics he would normally put up.

He said he’s not the type to be motivated in that way.

“I come to the rink every day with the same mindset, and that’s to play hard and help the team win,” Hagelin said. “Improve every year. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re a rookie or it’s your seventh year. That’s the way I approach it. I’m not a guy who can take shifts off and look good out there. I’m not that type of guy. Contract year or not, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

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