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The Martin Hanzal trade made the Wild a legitimate Stanley Cup threat

The Wild’s big trade has drawn criticism, but Minnesota has been much better for it.

Minnesota Wild v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The majority of media and fans in the Twin Cities felt the Minnesota Wild would need help at the Trade Deadline. But the market was tricky to navigate. Very few teams were truly out of playoff races by late February. And with even a first-round exit being able to generate a couple million in revenue, teams are incentivized to go for a playoff spot rather than rebuild.

So there were few sellers on the market. Basically, just Colorado and Arizona. The problem? They were out of a playoff spot for a reason, so they didn’t have many attractive assets to sell off. And the price for the few they did have was astronomical.

So many expected Minnesota to make a depth move, paying to add a solid fourth-liner like Brian Boyle. After all, making a move with a division rival in Colorado seemed unlikely. As for Arizona, did the Minnesota Wild really want to pay a premium for a player like Martin Hanzal?

Turned out they did. They paid an extremely high price to acquire the pending UFA Hanzal, swapping out a first-round draft pick, adding two second-rounders for good measure.

Did the Wild overpay? Sure, in the sense that 3 high picks is a lot for a player who has never scored 20 goals and topped 40 points just twice. But Minnesota made their team stronger down the middle without having to take away from their roster. For a team taking their best shot at a Stanley Cup, those were dice worth rolling.

Hanzal was supposed to help the Wild fend off the Chicago Blackhawks to secure a Central Division title. But that didn’t happen. Minnesota went just 5-10-2 after the Hanzal trade as Chicago blew past them in the standings. With the timing of the Wild’s slump coinciding almost perfectly with Minnesota’s big move, Hanzal got a share of the blame. He wasn’t getting points, but wasn’t scoring, he was too slow, etc.

It was lazy analysis.

The root of the Wild’s issues was, of course, Devan Dubnyk falling apart. That’s the trouble with goaltenders- when they’re good, things are great. But when they’re not, it makes everything else almost irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if your goalie can’t stop the puck, you won’t win many games.

Dubnyk’s struggles overshadowed the fact that Minnesota only improved since they acquired Hanzal.

Even when Minnesota was on top of the Western Conference, there were people who felt like they were a paper tiger. And indeed, Minnesota looked like a regression candidate. Up until the Hanzal trade, the Wild were 27th in Corsi For percentage, controlling 47.4% of shot attempts at 5-on-5. For context, that’s slightly worse than the Colorado Avalanche at that point.

While Corsi metrics aren’t everything, they’re a (somewhat) traditional and reliable way to determine quickly whether a team is good or not. Minnesota didn’t pass that test, and won a lot because they shot at a high percentage, and Dubnyk stood on his head for months.

That’s a recipe for regression, so when Minnesota went into a March tailspin, many justifiably wrote Minnesota off as a mirage.

But those who did so missed two major things. The first is while Minnesota didn’t successfully control play, they were great at controlling scoring chances. They were particularly great at keeping shots away from the net, and with their transition game, they were capable of generating chances.

And the second was that while Minnesota’s record was bad, the Wild fixed their Corsi issues the second Hanzal arrived. Let’s take a look at Minnesota’s 5-on-5 numbers before the Hanzal trade, and the 23 games since:

Before and After Hanzal.csv

Corsi For/60 Corsi Against/60 Corsi For %
Corsi For/60 Corsi Against/60 Corsi For %
53.3 (22nd) 59.3 (26th) 47.4 (27th)
58.1 (7th) 48.5 (1st) 54.5 (2nd)

That’s a staggering difference. Minnesota generated almost 5 more shot attempts per hour while conceding almost 10 fewer shot attempts heading their way. They went from being one of the worst Corsi teams to being elite, almost overnight.

But the results were bad, so you’d be justified in asking “But did Minnesota perhaps get less dangerous shots while allowing better scoring chances?” No, they improved in those numbers as well, going from controlling 56.8% of scoring chances before the Hanzal deal to a whopping 61.1% after. They’ve just been elite in every sense of the word (league-worst goaltending aside).

So why is there such a big difference? You can point to Martin Hanzal’s addition to the team.

He changed the team in a similar way as Eric Staal. Staal had a great season (28 goals, 65 points), but an even bigger impact than his scoring has been what he’s allowed Minnesota to do with their Top-6. Instead of mis-casting Mikko Koivu as the #1 offensive option, he was able to play defensive minutes. Instead of mis-casting Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle as centers, they were able to play them on the wing, where they flourished.

Hanzal had the same effect on the Wild’s Bottom-6. Erik Haula was slightly over-his-head as Minnesota’s third-line center. Hanzal allowed him to move to the fourth-line, in turn bumping the extremely ineffectual Tyler Graovac out of the lineup. With players slotted in an ideal place, both lines saw improvement.

So did Staal’s line. On the third-line, Haula needed Nino Niederreiter to be effective, so Boudreau would often slot Niederreiter on the third-line to prop that up. But with Hanzal being less teammate-dependent, Niederreiter can move up in the lineup, which makes the Staal line much better. Now Staal and Niederreiter can own the puck in the offensive zone without their third-line missing a beat.

Hanzal had to weather illness, poor goaltending, and undue criticism over these last 5 weeks. But he’s thrived, scoring 13 points in 19 games on the third-line while heavily tilting the ice in Minnesota’s favor.

But more importantly, his presence has the Wild playing much better than they otherwise would have. Minnesota paid a huge price to get Hanzal, but the trade was clearly worth it. The Wild’s fortunes this postseason will of course hinge on whether Dubnyk can rebound or not. But with the way Minnesota is playing, they could get a deep playoff run going with even an average performance from Dubnyk.

Sleep on the Wild at your own risk.