Why did the Dallas Stars sign Martin Hanzal?
Virtually all of the Stars’ other offseason moves are easily understood: The team needed to make a coaching change, so Ken Hitchcock was hired. To improve their last line of defense, they traded for Ben Bishop and signed him to a six-year deal before the giant goalie could test free agency. In need of a veteran, top-pairing defenseman to ride shotgun with John Klingberg, the Stars snagged expansion draftee Marc Methot from the Vegas Golden Knights. Alexander Radulov perfectly filled the team’s need for a top-two right wing and Tyler Pitlick was a low-risk depth acquisition.
The signing of the free agent Czech pivot isn’t as clear-cut. On the surface, Hanzal and the Stars seem an odd match. The team’s depth down the middle of the ice allowed them to expose, and lose, centerman Cody Eakin to the Golden Knights. Post-Eakin, the Stars still had Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Radek Faksa and Devin Shore as their top four pivots, with Gemel Smith and Jason Dickinson available as capable call-ups. Why, then, would GM Jim Nill go out and get another second-line center?
Getting Defensive: Hanzal vs. Spezza
The Stars’ performance below their own blue line has been suspect for several years. With the acquisitions of Hitchcock, Bishop and Methot, the club addressed system, goaltending and defense corps issues. Signing Hanzal signals a team-wide commitment to defense.
In the simplest possible terms, Hanzal is the defensive yin to Spezza’s offensive yang. The former is a top-notch shot suppressor; the latter, not so much. Even allowing for differences between teams, the Czech comes out ahead: Last season, Hanzal’s Relative Corsi Against per 60 minutes (a measure of the number of shot attempts by opposing teams when the player is on the ice, compared to when he’s on the bench) was minus-3.83, while Spezza posted a plus-1.52. Put another way, the Stars allowed more shot attempts when Spezza was on the ice, while the Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild allowed fewer with Hanzal. (Numbers courtesy of the late puckalytics.com)
The 6-foot-6 Czech also dominates at the faceoff dot, winning more than 56 percent of draws over the last three seasons, compared to 53.7 percent for the Canadian. On the penalty kill, as well as on late-game defensive zone draws, Hanzal’s handiwork will be huge for the Stars.
The assumption that Hanzal and Spezza will play on the same line led to much speculation over their respective roles. Which one will play wing? Will they split time at center? The newcomer put the issue to bed at a July 18 presser.
“I never play wing, so I probably stay at center,” said Hanzal.
What Hanzal’s Signing Means for Spezza
While much better defensively, Hanzal can’t compete with Spezza on the scoresheet. The latter has topped 30 goals in a season five times, including 33 in 2015-16, while the former tallied a career-best 20 goals last season.
Spezza’s offensive prowess makes him valuable to the Stars, and therein lies the problem. Forced to play on the unfamiliar wing for most of last season, his goal total fell to 15, a dramatic drop from 33 the year before. Though injuries undoubtedly impacted his production (he missed 14 games), the career centerman never seemed to find his stride at right wing.
Was it just a lack of familiarity with the position, or was Spezza uncomfortable, perhaps even unhappy, on the wing? Eyebrows were raised when Hitchcock stated his desire to turn Seguin into a top two-way center, but pounding square peg Spezza into a round hole on the right wing could prove even more challenging. If Hitch can’t do it, the Stars must consider other options.
Plan B: Trade Spezza
If the Stars decide to move Spezza, they’ll have to contend with the modified no-trade clause in his contract, a list of 20 teams to which he can be traded. That aside, five teams need a top-two center and have the cap room to make such a deal work. They are, in no particular order:
New York Rangers
Trading Derek Stepan left the Rangers very thin down the middle of the ice. Unless they make a move, they’ll start the 2017-18 season with Mika Zibanejad and either J.T. Miller or Kevin Hayes as their top two centers. That’s not a good look for a team with a 35-year-old, all-world goaltender who needs another shot at the Stanley Cup sooner, rather than later.
To fit Spezza’s $7.5 million contract under the salary cap, the Rangers would have to send a contract of near-equal value back to the Stars. Rick Nash, who has one year remaining on his $7.8 million AAV deal, fits the bill. The left-shooting right wing would give the Stars another big body up front, and his expiring contract gives the club flexibility heading into next season, when Valeri Nichushkin is expected to return from Russia.
Columbus Blue Jackets
When the Blue Jackets sent Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Seth Jones early in 2016, they traded away their only top-line-caliber center. Alexander Wennberg is growing into the role, but he’s only 22. Pierre-Luc Dubois, drafted third overall by the Jackets in 2016, is the franchise’s center of the future, but they’re not going to rush him. The team has reportedly shown significant interest in Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, but the asking price remains prohibitive.
Compared to Duchene, Spezza could be a bargain for the Blue Jackets. Slotted in as 2C, he would take some of the heat off Wennberg and give the team two legitimate scoring lines.
The Jackets have the cap space to take on Spezza’s contract and a number of talented, young right wings to offer in return. 35-goal scorer Cam Atkinson is likely off limits, but either Oliver Bjorkstrand or Josh Anderson could tempt the Stars. Bjorkstrand has more high-end skill, but Anderson’s combination of size, snarl and scoring could make him a better fit in Big D.
The Hurricanes made several big moves between April and July. They’re an improved team on paper, but did they do enough to get back into the playoffs? With the addition of Marcus Kruger, the ‘Canes have seven players who can play center, but none are as effective as Spezza. The veteran pivot could be the final piece of the puzzle for the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2009.
The club’s financial situation could cause them to shy away from Spezza’s contract. Were the Hurricanes willing to make the move, a return of productive journeyman right wing Lee Stempniak, plus some combination of picks and/or prospects would help the Stars now and in the future.
Like the Rangers, the Canadiens are another team in “win-now” mode. Also in common with their counterparts to the south, the Habs could also use a top-two center. With former Stars Ales Hemsky, Jordie Benn and David Schlemko already on the roster, Spezza should feel right at home in Montreal…in theory, at least.
From the Stars’ perspective, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher or even a package deal involving Paul Byron could make this deal work. The biggest concern is whether or not the Canadiens are on Spezza’s no-trade list. Montreal’s intense media spotlight could make life rough for a marquee player on the downslope of his career, especially one with Spezza’s hefty contract.
The Coyotes picked up some big pieces this summer, including goalie Antti Raanta, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and center Derek Stepan. That infusion of veteran skill, combined with a bevy of talented youngsters, make the ‘Yotes one of the league’s most intriguing teams heading into the 2017-18 season. Early predictions indicate the team will show improvement over last season, but won’t challenge for a playoff spot. An addition like Spezza could change everything.
After Stepan, the Coyotes have a couple of very talented pivots in Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome, who have exactly 10 games of NHL experience between them. A one-two punch of Stepan and Spezza would vault the team into the playoff conversation and allow the youngsters to grow into the NHL game with sheltered minutes.
Promising defenseman Jakob Chychrun’s recent knee surgery could present the Stars with an opportunity to include either Patrik Nemeth or Jamie Oleksiak in a Spezza trade, which might be enough to land top prospect Christian Fischer, a two-way power forward who is expected to play big minutes for the Coyotes this season.