Picture, for a moment, that all NHL players were to hit the open market and a bidding war were to ensue. Which Arizona Coyotes would be most sought after? Who fits the mold of a true, franchise cornerstone?
For the Coyotes, those players are interesting to define. Obviously, Oliver Ekman-Larsson fits the profile, and it is hard to not include Keith Yandle in the mix as well.
In this alternate reality, potential and projection are more important than production and experience. More teams would go after young guns like Max Domi and Brandon Gormley instead of older guys Martin Erat and Zbynek Michalek. Even Shane Doan would find his value difficult to enumerate.
This is how the best general managers think - each player is a player, yes, but also an asset. And certain assets carry different values alongside them based on factors like position, affordability, future prospects and of the like. Of course, one cannot be over-occupied in things like that. A guy like Shane Doan does have tremendous value when building a team, but sustained success comes from thinking beyond the now.
All of this exposition is to say that when you put everything into consideration, centerman Martin Hanzal may be the team's most valuable commodity.
In this day and age, success in the NHL rests on having production from your center position. At least, that is the appearance. Examine some recent transactions made by teams across the league: the Anaheim Ducks pulled the trigger to bring Ryan Kesler in, as did the Dallas Stars with Jason Spezza. The St. Louis Blues gave Paul Stastny a hefty contract of $7 million per year this past free agency period. The Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins took measures to keep their own stud centers - Jonathan Toews and David Krejci, respectively - from hitting the open market as well.
The common thread is, of course, that center position. Few teams will ever recreate the Crosby-Malkin 1-2 center punch Pittsburgh has, but it feels like every team is trying.
As far as Arizona is concerned, this Tippett-coached team is clearly a defense-and-goaltending team first and foremost. Despite that, the Coyotes display deceptively good depth at the center position, anchored by Hanzal, Antoine Vermette, Sam Gagner and Joe Vitale, as well as a guy like Kyle Chipchura - a winger who can also man the position.
While the lack of wing talent has dragged the forward unit down as a whole, it is hard to clump the centers under that umbrella. The team's top three centers from last season - Vermette, Hanzal and the estranged Mike Ribeiro - all eclipsed 40 points last season. Although Sidney Crosby notched 104 by himself, 40 is at the very least a healthy amount of production.
On a team lacking in overall talent up front, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Czech stands out as a true franchise building block. It is more than just his position and role on the team, though. As explained previously, Hanzal has a lot of positives that make him valuable beyond those things.
For instance, last season saw Marty's best statistical season to date. His 15 goals and 25 assists combined for 40 points, set a new career high. Even more impressively, he did it in only 65 games. Extrapolated to a full season, Hanzal would have added four goals and seven assists for an impressive 51 points.
Even without the offense, Hanzal makes his living as a prototypical Dave Tippett center. Defense, special teams and his work in the faceoff circle make Hanzal easy to rely on in any situation. He has the size and defensive instinct to make coaches comfortable putting him against the other team's top lines. That size also makes him a perfect power play screener, with five of his 15 goals last season coming on the man advantage. Last season, he was 599-500 in the faceoff circle for a 54.5 faceoff percentage - always a valuable skill to have in possession-heavy schemes. In addition to all those things, Hanzal brings a physical presence, amassing 200 hits (35th in the league, per NHL.com) last season.
Simply put, he is a force when he is on the ice for the Coyotes.
But there's the rub with Hanzal: when he is on the ice. He has never played a full 82 games in a season in his seven year career and flirts with the "injury prone" label. At this point in his career, that just may be part of the Hanzal package. At the highest level of athletics, a lot goes into keeping a body in game shape. Hanzal just has a little more body to work with.
Hanzal also saw a lot of penalty trouble, with a team high 73 penalty minutes despite seeing 17 games short of a full season. He even served a two-game suspension for charging at one point in the season. Very few would call Hanzal a "dirty" player, but when you are built like a NFL linebacker and body check a 5-foot-8 running back, every hit looks harder than it actually is. Such is the case for the behemoth Hanzal. It is possible his freakish size works against him in this case.
If utilized correctly and kept healthy, Martin Hanzal has the potential to be a top-30 player in the entire league. How many players boast his complete package of faceoff aptitude, shutdown defense, size and offense? This is a center-driven league. Even if defense wins championships, guys like Hanzal are important pieces to not only counter the other big centers the Coyotes will face, but also be one of the big centers that other teams worry about.