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Is Martin Hanzal the Minnesota Wild’s second-line center?

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Los Angeles Kings v Minnesota Wild Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Since the NHL trade deadline was yesterday and my day to write for the Hockey Wilderness is Thursday, my plan was to write about the trades the Wild completed at the deadline. Humph! Last week, I wrote about the pending deadline and suggested that the Wild should be looking to improve the fourth line, recommending that the Wild target Brian Boyle and, maybe Erik Condra’s contract, to bring down the Wild’s cost of acquisition. I also highlighted P.A. Parenteau as a cheap addition.

Instead, GM Chuck Fletcher made the deal for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White. The HW did a great job covering the deal and writing about the players involved and the acquisition cost. And, per usual, the comments section was strong from the HW community.

But, I think, one aspect of bringing in Martin Hanzal to bolster the Wild’s forward group hasn’t really been a topic of conversation here yet, so I’m going to pop this out last minute and bring up quality of competition.

I’m a big fan of Rob Vollman. I got into fancy stats, starting with his player usage charts. And the screenshot above represents Wild forwards this season at five on five. The horizontal axis is offensive zone start percentage. The players to the left handle more faceoffs in the defensive zone and the players to the right benefit from more o-zone starts. The vertical axis is quality of completion. The forwards higher on the chart play against tougher competition, weaker competition faced are at the bottom. Here’s a link to the Hockey Abstract website. http://www.hockeyabstract.com/. It’s fun.

If it’s too small to read on your screen, Koivu, Granlund and Zucker are up and to the left. They handle the largest percentage of draws in the defensive zone and play the toughest competition. Staal, Coyle and Parise are in the middle. Nino, Pominville and Haula are next left to right. They face the weakest competition and benefit from the most o-zone starts. And that’s Stewey in red on the bottom right.

The size of the circle represents TOI. CF% relative to the team is represented by the color of the circle. Blue is good. Red is not.

Admittedly, quality of competition is a tricky thing to measure. In the chart, Vollman uses the CF% of the players the player you are trying to measure are playing against, the thought being that the higher the CF% the better the competition. Another way to measure is by TOI. If a player plays against competition that plays a lot of minutes, that must be better competition.

But let’s stick with CF% to compare apples to apples. Bringing this back to Hanzal, according to corsica.hockey, of the 295 forwards that have played at least 500 minutes of 5v5 hockey this season, Hanzal is second highest in CF% QoC this season, behind only Justin Abdelkader. For context for Wild fans, Granlund ranks 14th and Koivu sits at 19th in the league. Whether you are all in on fancy stats or still skeptical, Wild fans know that the Koivu line has been tasked with tough minutes this season and Hanzal’s minutes have actually been just as tough with Arizona.

That leaves Coach Double-B with some interesting choices when setting his lineup and looking for match ups. He could give Hanzal easier minutes in the bottom six, the idea being that he might produce more with easier competition and zone starts. It’s an option. Or Boudreau could alleviate the tough minutes that the Koivu line faces by giving some of those zone starts to Hanzal. Maybe I’m superstitious, but I don’t think I would change anything about the Koivu line and its deployment. They’ve been great.

Instead, the early indications are that Gabby is going to use Hanzal similar to the Koivu line against top competition. The Wild has only played two games since the trade, one at home and one on the road. Against LA at home with last change, Hanzal played mostly with Coyle on the right and Haula at left wing. According to Natural Stat Trick, Hanzal’s line played mostly against the Kopitar line with Brown and Kempe. Hanzal played 9:31 of 15:15 at 5v5 versus Kopitar. Koivu’s line matched the Carter line.

Against Winnipeg on the road with first change, Hanzal played mostly with Coyle and Graovac. Of Hanzal’s 10:25 of ice time at 5on5, six of those minutes were against the line of Perreault, Scheifele and Laine. Koivu’s line faced the Little, Wheeler, Ehlers line the most at 5v5.

If Boudreau is going to match the Koivu and Hanzal lines hard against the competition’s top six, that effectively results in Hanzal being the Wild’s second line center. Although we think about the Hanzal trade as an addition to the bottom six, his deployment suggests that Hanzal might be more than that and it might change what we think about who Hanzal should have as linemates.

I have a couple opinions. One, perhaps the Wild could reprise the best line from last season with a different look. Maybe the Wild put Hanzal between Nino and Pominville and that line would get a ton of minutes on the second line with tough deployment. That would leave the bottom six centered by Staal and Haula between some combination of Parise, Coyle, Stewart, White, Schroeder and Graovac. How would Staal, Parise and Coyle fare against bottom six forwards?

The other thought goes back to my thinking last week around the trade deadline. Would Hanzal be the best fourth line center in the league? Would he make up for Stewart’s weakness on defense? If Boudreau surrounded Stewart with Hanzal and a strong defensive winger like Pominville, would Coach Double-B trust those three against top six forwards? Those are some interesting elements to play with over the last 20 games of the regular season.

I think the Hanzal acquisition, and potential overpay in the trade market, had to do with the fact that Hanzal has been incredibly underrated in the desert. The Wild came out of last season with questions about depth up the middle and now the team has an embarrassment of riches. With Koivu still playing like the Hockey Ninja and the addition of Hanzal to help face tough competition, the only thing that is of no doubt is that the lines centered by Staal and Haula are going to be facing weaker competition through the rest of the regular season and through the playoffs, regardless of how Boudreau numbers his lines.

All stats courtesy of hockeyabstract.com, corsica.hockey and naturalstattrick.com.