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DENVER – There’s a big what-could-have been on both sides of the ice for the Buffalo Sabres in this battle of heavyweights for the Stanley Cup.

There’s Colorado Avalanche center J.T. Compher, taken in the second round by Darcy Regier in his final draft as Sabres general manager in 2013 and traded two years later to the Avalanche in the Ryan O’Reilly trade.

And there’s’ Tampa Bay Lightning winger Brandon Hagel. The remorse from Buffalo’s standpoint has to be a lot higher when it comes to his career path.

A stealth pick by GM Tim Murray in the sixth round in 2016, the Sabres let the 5-foot-9 Hagel go for nothing in 2018 when GM Jason Botterill opted not to sign him. That’s even though Hagel had put up seasons of 71 and 59 points the previous two years at Red Deer of the Western League. 

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Hagel went back into the 2018 draft but, amazingly enough, wasn’t picked at all. The next year, he had 41 goals and 102 points as Red Deer coach and former New York Islander Brent Sutter made him a pet project to get ready for the NHL and not to drop hockey in favor of teaching. Chicago signed Hagel midway through that season to an entry-level deal.

The Sabres, of course, are still trying to fill out their bottom 6. Hagel would look terrific in one of those roles and clearly rates as one who got away. So would Compher, although it’s hard to argue the return for him.

In the next 10 days, either Compher or Hagel will be lifting the Stanley Cup. 

“Obviously, my story is a little bit different than a lot of people’s not being drafted,” Hagel, 23, said prior to Game 2 of the series Saturday night in Ball Arena. “It started in the Bantam draft all the way to getting drafted to the NHL but then didn’t end up signing. Pretty different and pretty crazy, to be honest. But it puts a chip on your shoulder.”

Compher was just a prospect used in a major deal and sometimes that’s what you do with prospects. He went to Colorado along with two former Sabres first-rounders in Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov and the 31st pick in 2015 in exchange for O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn. It was a deal completed at the draft in Sunrise, Fla., and announced about 20 minutes before the Sabres claimed Jack Eichel with the No. 2 pick.

Compher had just finished his second year at Michigan when the trade was made. He played one more season there and then signed with the Avs. 

“I was still in college so it’s definitely easier to get traded when you’re not in the league yet,” said Compher, 27. “It doesn’t really uproot your life or anything. It was obviously a big trade for Buffalo at the time, but it didn’t have that kind of impact on me. At that point, I just went to a different development camp that summer and went back to school and talked to different development people that season. 

“I wasn’t the major piece of the trade and it was just something that you have no control over. And once I got to Colorado, even before I signed, it always felt good to part of the organization. And obviously I’m happy to still be here.”

Compher’s 2016-17 season thus saw him in San Antonio and not Rochester. He played just 41 games in the AHL, got the call to Colorado and has never seen the minors again.

Compher posted career highs of 18 goals and 33 points this season, and has five goals and three assists in the playoffs. It was Compher’s shot in overtime in Game 1 that was blocked by Victory Hedman and retrieved by Valeri Nichushkin, who passed to Andre Burakovsky for the game-winning goal. Compher has taken on a bigger role at No. 2 center in the wake of the thumb injury suffered by Nazem Kadri in the opening game of the West final against Edmonton.

“Everyone needs to be a difference maker, no matter where you’re playing the lineup,” Compher said. “It’s gonna take everyone we’ve got  throughout the lineup. So it’s whatever role I’m in, I’ll be ready for it.”

“He’s been good,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of Compher after Saturday’s morning skate. “Somewhere along the line in the St. Louis series (in the second round), he was really starting to elevate his game. Production-wise, he’s more tenacious on pucks, getting to the net front. And then with the loss of Kadri, he gets elevated in the Edmonton series, does a really nice job for us.”

“The Colorado Avalanche hosted Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, and they’re a prime example of how rebuilds don’t have to take forever. Or at least, in terms we’re all too familiar with, 11 years going on 12,” writes Mike Harrington.

Compher said prior to the series he’s motivated by being one of five players left on the Colorado roster from its 48-point season in 2016-17. The Avs finished last in the NHL that year, dropped to No. 4 in the lottery but took Cale Makar with their first-round pick.

“I played the last 20 games that year and it seems like each year we just focused on the process and making sure that we’re taking steps as a team,” Compher said. “The end goal was to win a Stanley Cup it took years to have the learning lessons of how to win certain games, playoffs, regular season, and obviously, the lineup has continued to evolve.”

Brandon Hagel Stanley Cup

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Brandon Hagel (38) reaches for puck behind Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar (8) during the first period of Game 1 of the  Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Denver.

Hagel has stepped in on a key defensive line for Tampa alongside center Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. It’s the role Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow had for Tampa Bay last year before all three departed via the Seattle expansion draft and free agency.

Since they were put together in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals in New York, it took nearly 76 minutes of ice time before the line gave up a goal at even strength, that coming on Gabriel Landeskog’s tally that opened the scoring in Game 1.

“We identified a role for him and the kid has been exceptional for us,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Saturday. “He’s just a burst of energy.”

Earlier in the season while with Chicago, Hagel was joking with Chicago reporters that the Blackhawks might need to get “two firsts, couple of prospects, (Connor) McDavid” in a trade for him because he was having a good season. 

Closer than you might have thought. Hagel was acquired from Chicago in a surprising deal at the trade deadline that saw the Blackhawks willingly part with a player who had 21 goals in 55 games and had a $1.5 million cap hit for two more seasons. The return was huge in forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk as well as first-round draft picks in 2023 and 2024, but it sure looked like a tank move for Chicago and a savant win-now moment for Tampa GM Julien BriseBrois.

Hagel had his first hat trick for Chicago in his 100th NHL game Feb. 25 vs. New Jersey. Playing a more defensive role, Hagel had four goals and three assists in 22 games for Tampa. He has two goals and four assists in the playoffs.

“Pretty surreal,” Hagel said. “Playing 100 games in this league, someone obviously always wants to do, but being able to play for a Stanley Cup probably 35 games later when I probably wasn’t in that situation after my 100th game, I couldn’t be happier. Pretty crazy year.”

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