Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said the acquisition of Martin Hanzal was one that put his teams’ “chips in the middle of the table,” per NHL.com. There really isn’t any other way to look at it after Minnesota anted up and shipped three draft picks — a first in 2017, second in 2018 and conditional selection in 2019 — and Grayson Downing to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for the 30-year-old unrestricted free agent to be. It’s a steep price to pay for what will very likely be a rental player, but the Wild aren’t messing around when it comes to their shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup this season. The willingness to do what was necessary to land Hanzal is proof of that.
Acquiring Hanzal has some clear cut positives for the Wild, of course. At 6-foot-6, 226 pounds, he’s a massive pivot who can play up and down the lineup and provide some offensive punch. He has 16 goals and 26 points across 51 games this season, putting him on pace for the best goal scoring campaign of his career. Minnesota’s scoring depth throughout their lineup was already one of the team’s strong suits, and adding Hanzal only serves to improve that. Being able to match lines and roll all four units can make or break a playoff series, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another team who can match the Wild line for line with the post-season coming.
It’s also a move that’s somewhat reminiscent of a deal made in recent years by arguably the Wild’s top adversary for the Western Conference crown, the Chicago Blackhawks. During the 2014-15 campaign, with Patrick Kane on the shelf, the Blackhawks went out and made waves with a deal that sent a first-round pick to the Coyotes, along with prospect Klas Dahlbeck, for center Antoine Vermette.
The two trades, the Wild’s Hanzal acquisition and Blackhawks’ trade for Vermette, have their differences, to be sure. The biggest is that acquiring Vermette was only possible because Kane was on the shelf with a broken clavicle whereas the Wild are at full strength at the time of their acquisition of Hanzal. That said, the two deals are nearly identical in that acquiring the piece from the Coyotes serves only to add to the depth, and the only real way for either deal to pay off is for the season to end with a Stanley Cup victory. Chicago made that a reality, and now the Wild will seek to do the same.
What the Wild need out of Hanzal is also similar to what the Blackhawks needed out of Vermette. While Hanzal’s aforementioned scoring ability makes him a valuable piece, the fact of the matter is Minnesota needs him primarily for his two-way ability. When Chicago acquired Vermette back in February 2015, they were ninth in the league in goals for and among the best defensive teams, allowing the fourth-fewest goals against. Getting one of the coveted pieces wasn’t something that was supposed to help the offense, but rather one that provided additional depth at a time when it’s at a premium. That’s almost exactly the situation the Wild find themselves in, except Minnesota happens to be slightly better at both ends of the ice.
As of Monday, Minnesota ranks fifth in goals for, potting 195 this season, and the only team that has allowed fewer goals is the league-leading Washington Capitals. A massive part of that has been the play of goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has to be the frontrunner to win the Vezina Trophy this season. But going hand-in-hand with Dubnyk’s play is that there’s never a time when a unit on the Wild is all that overpowered. Now imagine that same lineup with Hanzal, a veteran two-way pivot who can take heavy defensive zone starts and kill penalties.
This is a team that has gotten so much firepower out of its lineup and one that has seen its offense spread almost equally across all four lines. The Wild boast 10 players with 10 or more goals, and Hanzal is the 11th 10-plus goal guy in the lineup. So while he might add a few goals here or there, he won’t be required to come in and be something he isn’t. He can play tough defensive minutes, skate against top opponents and chip in here or there. If he happens to score, that’s a bonus, but the fact he can also make plays with his body and his stick in the defensive zone will be just as important.
The other underrated element of the deal, one that Fletcher copped to, is that acquiring Hanzal ensures that no other team who could have used him to bolster their middle-six is going to be able to get him now. Per NHL.com, Fletcher said that the Wild’s goal was “to have him play for us and also to keep him away from other teams in the West.”
It’s not easy to work your way to the Stanley Cup final, and in a wide-open Western Conference, this might have been the best year in recent memory where going all-in could carve a team a path through the playoffs. Blocking other Western teams from potentially landing a piece that could have strengthened their roster in time for the post-season is a clever move. Some will call it an overpay, some will call it foolish, but with the position the Wild are in right now, leading the Central Division and tops in the Western Conference, not making a move on Hanzal now may have looked equally foolish down the line if one of the other Western contenders scooped up the pivot and he paid off in the post-season.
According to the Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo, Fletcher said this is a deal that sends a message to both the players and the fans. This is the Wild “taking a swing” and seeing if this can be their year. And with an already stellar roster and a team that’s performing as well as they ever have, adding Hanzal to bolster the depth gives Minnesota a better shot as of Monday than they had on Sunday before the trade. And even if Hanzal isn’t an offensive stud for the Wild, what he does up and down the ice could make all the difference.
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