It's hard to believe, but this season will mark Martin Hanzal's eighth NHL season as a member of the Arizona Coyotes. He's going to be 28 before the season is finished. It seems like only last season some were predicting a break out year from the Czech pivot:
There are a lot of guys to choose from that should (or need) to make a leap forward this season, but I expect big things from Martin Hanzal. For the first time in years, he is not the defacto "top" center for this team and that should do wonders for him. He'll still see plenty of ice time against top centers and lines in his own end, but he should face much easier competition in the offensive zone. The Ribeiro signing has somewhat reduced the expectations for Hanzal and with a little less responsibility on his shoulders, I expect him to thrive. It doesn't hurt that some guy wearing number 17 will still be skating on his wing either.
Those were my own words regarding Marty in a preseason roundtable piece from before the start of last season, regarding whom to expect big things from in the coming year. While Marty had his best statistical season of his career last season, it wasn't a huge step forward in production or play.
In fact, you could easily make the argument that he played better in both the Coyotes division winning 2011 season and the following lockout-shortened season.
But do stats, whether traditional or new-age, tell the whole story? There are factors that go into any season that simply can't be calculated or quantified, and this coming season, Hanzal will face many new variables that could change how he plays.
For one thing, Hanzal enters this season without his long time linemate, countryman and offensive security blanket Radim Vrbata, who bolted for the lovely vistas of British Columbia. However, that may not be a bad thing.
There were long stretches of last season when neither Hanzal or Vrby were producing much at all and coach Dave Tippett's refusal to split the pair up may have worked against them. Without the Czech connection, Marty may be able to find chemistry with another not-so-young-anymore Coyote: forward Mikkel Boedker. Or maybe he gets to spend his ice time with Shane Doan, so Marty can be in front of the net instead of in the corners. Maybe Max Domi provides a reasonable facsimile of 2011 Ray Whitney and sets up Hanzal with plenty of easy scoring chances. Fans won't really know until camp starts, but for the first time in a few years, No. 11 has options galore in who could line up on his wings.
Also, the expectations for Hanzal may be lower now than ever before. He was probably passed on the expected depth chart last season with the impressive play of Antoine Vermette and if the newly acquired Sam Gagner stays at the center position, Hanzal may be best suited to a third line component this season. While Hanzal is clearly not a third line center, his production numbers might be best suited for it this season. Let's look at the numbers from the three Coyotes top centers over the last five seasons:
Hanzal has the worst shooting percentage, scores fewer points per game and maybe most importantly, finds himself in the lineup less often than the others. Hanzal misses games due to injuries and suspension far more than the other two, which is surprising considering Gagner's "injury-prone" reputation. Putting him on the third line would maximize the abilities of the other two players if Gagner stays in the middle. Hanzal on the third line would find himself getting potentially better matchups and more favorable zone starts than in previous seasons as teams would matchup more against the Vermette and Gagner lines.
Finally, going back to the games played point, Hanzal needs to stay on the actual ice. In Hanzal's first three seasons in the NHL, he played in more than 70 games in all of them, appearing in 227 of 246 total games (92.3 percent). In the five years since, he's only played in 310 of 376 possible games (82.4 percent). It's a mix of injury and suspensions and the suspensions speak to Marty's discipline problems. In three of the past four years, Hanzal has been a negative player in penalty differential (penalties drawn vs. taken) including a negative seven last season. Being big is an advantage, but for Hanzal it has also been a detriment as his size leads to the majority of the penalties he takes. If Hanzal can harness that size, his offense can improve, he'll play more disciplined and be on the ice more.
With a little less responsibility and new linemates, Hanzal could have his most productive year ever. While there is little chance he breaks out and becomes a 60-point offensive juggernaut, he does have an opportunity to become only the second Coyotes center to break 50-point plateau in the Tippett era. He may have reached his peak talent wise, but Hanzal could once again have a career best season in 2014-15.