James Hagens has unique opportunity as 17-year-old for Team USA at World Junior
PLYMOUTH, Michigan – The only thing James Hagens hasn’t been able to accelerate has been his draft year.
Hagens will finish high school a year early, graduating as a 17-year-old this spring, and enroll at Boston College as one of the youngest players in college hockey for the 2024-25 season.
When Team USA opens its three-day camp for the 2024 World Junior Championship here in Michigan, Hagens will be the youngest player in attendance. He’s not only expected to make the team but also play a key role for the Americans that have golden aspirations in Sweden.
On Wednesday, while the rest of the World Junior hopefuls were arriving in Plymouth, Hagens was helping power the United States National Team Development team to an 8-5 USHL victory against the Chicago Steel in a school day game. Hagens scored the final goal, a power play marker, with Team USA brass watching from the press box above.
Hagens, for some, is already the presumptive No. 1 pick for the 2025 NHL Draft. He talks in “ifs” about making Team USA for World Junior, in a similar way Connor Bedard talked in “ifs” about making the Chicago Blackhawks – the player is sticking to the humble hockey script, but we all know what’s really going on here.
There are little tests, by design or not, that Hagens has aced this week with the Under-18 team leading up to the Under-20 camp. With Cole Eiserman out of the lineup with a minor injury, Hagens was put in the shooting role on the flank instead of his normal role as a distributor – he delivered a one-timed blast for his goal, which screamed NHL ready.
At even strength, Hagens was lower in the lineup, seemingly by design, to see him play with lighter-scoring NTDP players. To see how he could elevate others and operate with a similar line assignment at World Junior. He passed that test with flying colours.
Team USA GM John Vanbiesbrouck doesn’t take bringing an underage player lightly, consider the reasons he didn’t pick Eiserman, and it wasn’t related to the minor injury that kept the high-scoring forward, and potential No. 2 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, off the camp roster.
“Who is he gonna replace in the top-nine? It’s not like he’s going to get one of those roles,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “We’re not going to bring him as a 14th forward and have him just sit out. So it’s better in our view for him to stay here and develop and play with the (under-18 team) in December. I talked to him about it the other day. In two years we are going to be hosting and he’s going to be the star on that team. He will have his time in that (world junior) jersey.”
Hagens' time is now. If you read between the lines, while Eieserman will be part of the plan in two years when the Americans host – likely in either Seattle, Las Vegas, Denver, or Minneapolis – Hagens will likely be in the NHL.
So what about Hagens stood out now to Vanbiesbrouck, besides the 37 points in 23 games for the under-18 team as a 17-year-old?
“It’s all the details for him, he can produce and play on the rush, we all see that, but it’s the details away from it,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “He can add an element to all parts of the game, and we don’t want to bring a young kid who can feel awkward or the coaches need to protect him. (Hagens) he fits into the category where he’s trusted, and he’s in that category of other younger players we’ve bought before like (Jack) Hughes.”
Lofty expectations and comparisons, but they’ve been earned.
For Hagens, juggling that type of praise and expectations, and statements like the one earlier in this story, “already the presumptive No. 1 pick for the 2025 NHL Draft” are about doing his best to ignore outside noise and focus on his process.
For example, one of Hagens' driving motivators to finish high school early and play college hockey next season was so he could play at least one season with his brother Michael Hagens at Boston College.
The extra classes in the summer, elevating to high school senior class earlier, wasn't about draft status – he’d likely go in the top-five this season if he was available – it was about the family vision of both brothers playing on the same team.
So Hagens will go into camp this week as the youngest player for Team USA, he’ll make the team, and be one of the youngest players in the entire tournament. He’ll deal with the proper “ifs” when talking to the media, when everyone else is well aware it’s “when” and “now” for the 17-year-old.