On the surface, there were good reasons to trade for Martin Hanzal. Dallas was coming off a season in which their penalty kill that was the worst in 20 years. As long as Hanzal could play more than 60 games, he’d be good for 40 points, while bolstering the two-way play of the new system. And Dallas really needed someone to fill in Cody Eakin’s critical 12-point spot from last season.
There were also good reasons not to trade for Hanzal. Not only had he never played the full 82 games, but he had frequently missed large portions of the season. The first was in 2015 due to a season-ending back injury, and again this season, requiring spinal fusion surgery.
Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, and Radek Faksa were Dallas’ top three centers, and performed as such in the 2016-2017 season. In addition, Jason Dickinson, Devin Shore, Roope Hintz, Justin Dowling, and even Gemel Smith (who has played portions of his AHL career at center) were all chomping at the bit. So either you’re paying $4.7 million for a fourth-line center, or you’re dropping your $7.5 million center to play fourth-line minutes. Unless you bump your reasonably costed 24-year-old $2.2 million third-line center down the lineup.
Unfortunately for the Stars, they got themselves a coach who could do both (not to mention rule out any possibility of getting similar production from a $650,000 contract, which — it turns out — they did).
As much as I’d like to extricate player analysis from the organization’s decisions, it factors into Hanzal’s on-ice play. For example, when you look at the forward deployment, Spezza was never going to be a second-line center under Ken Hitchcock. And worse yet, Spezza was one of Hanzal’s five most common linemates. Whatever defensive gains might have been made by placing them together was canceled out by the sheer lack of foot speed.
On top of that, Remi Elie, Brett Ritchie, and Devin Shore (his other common linemates) were not (and are not) the kind of finishers to potentially take advantage of Hanzal’s ability to bring the puck back into the offensive zone. They were not (and are not) the kind of playmakers to exploit a counterattack getting out of the offensive zone. And they were not (and are not) the kind of fast, shifty wingers who can create something out of nothing in the neutral zone when all else is equal.
There’s also this (feel free to shed a tear, Gemel):
And then there are his shot rates. Among all 15 Dallas forwards, Hanzal was last in high-danger shot attempts against, ninth in raw shot attempts against, last in goals against, and 13th in expected goal differential. So in addition to getting no offense from Hanzal, they got no defense either.
Former Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock liked Hanzal because he “plays through the competition”, but the competition didn’t appear to feel the heat.
None of this is to indict Hanzal’s game. However, in the context of Hitchcock being an ownership decision, the Hanzal signing feels like a Hitchcock move — a big, burly defensive veteran forward who was a known quantity and could be valuable regardless of whether he was a fit.
But the concept of “fitting in” is not just a high school cliché. In hockey, it’s identifying playing styles. A good head coach (and organization) should ask: do I want my transition forwards (those that score off zone entries), with my passers, or my shooters? Do I want my build-up forwards (those that seem to create offense via piggybacking with lots of secondary assists and chip-ins) with my passers, or my shooters? Who is good at volume shooting, and what kind of forward best exploits this trait? Who is good at high-danger shooting, and what kind of forward best exploits this trait? If they’re balanced, or dependent (like Hanzal), who are the best candidates (regardless of age or height) to create that critical synergy?
These are the questions Dallas needs to answer moving forward, because he still has two more years left on his contract. The Stars shouldn’t be afraid to play him on the fourth line if they have to because Seguin, Spezza, and Faksa are still here — and in this writer’s opinion, still better.
Dallas Stars 2017-2018 Season Grade: Martin Hanzal
This poll is closed
A - He plays through the competition, bro!
B - Still a good PK’er, and can’t be held responsible for bad coaching and a bad contract.
C - I’m still raging over those first 20 games when Faksa was demoted, but at least his TOI dropped.
D - He didn’t score, didn’t defend, and even Hintz, Dickinson, and Dowling are better C options.
F - He makes me miss Cody Eakin.