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  • Don't Count Ryan Hartman Out Yet

    Tony Abbott

    Not even the most optimistic Minnesota Wild fans expected Ryan Hartman to score 34 goals again. Hartman's incredible season was so out-of-nowhere, going from 16 goals in his previous 120 games to being the Wild's No. 1 center, that it was too difficult to see a repeat. And with top prospect Marco Rossi knocking on the door, Hartman, a natural winger, had some competition at center on the horizon.


    Still, nobody probably imagined Hartman would lose that top center spot six games into the season.


    That's what happened this week, and Hartman is now skating on the wing. Furthermore, he's no longer with Kirill Kaprizov, who certainly fueled a good portion of Hartman's career year. He's bounced onto Matt Boldy's line for a moment but is currently alongside Joel Eriksson Ek and Brandon Duhaime. It's a much grittier, more defensively-focused line than last year.


    Why did he get the demotion? Part of it was a necessary shake-up after a 1-3-1 start. But he also didn't do himself any favors with some high-profile defensive miscues and bad penalties. None of these flaws are new. Hartman was quietly one of Minnesota's worst defensive players last season and had a penchant for going to the box as well.


    [caption id=attachment_136792" align="alignnone" width="737]Screen-Shot-2022-10-27-at-3.01.11-AM.png Courtesy of Evolving Hockey[/caption]


    A player will get leeway for mistakes when they're racking up 30 goals on the top line. When that line is sputtering at 5-on-5, and you have no goals and two assists, though? Your spot is vulnerable, and the fans are noticing. After Freddy Gaudreau assumed Hartman's spot on Monday, Thomas Williams of Hockey Wilderness summed up the general feelings surrounding Hartman's play.

    Hartman has been so bad that he cannot keep the top-line center spot after regaining the position just last week. It’s just not working, so Evason has put defensively-minded Gaudreau in his place to try and just see if something works.

    But where some see Hartman turning into a fourth-line pumpkin as the clock strikes midnight, a deeper look reveals a player who is doing surprisingly well, given the scrutiny and criticism heaped on him. And in some ways, he's looking not just better than last season, but one of the better players on the team.


    How can you figure that, given his mere two assists and defensive miscues? Sure, that doesn't stack up to what Mats Zuccarello (ten points), or Kaprizov (eight points), but much of that success has come on the power play. Hartman wasn't good there last season and hasn't been with inconsistent minutes on the second unit this year. That's fine. His real value is at 5-on-5, even if he hasn't found paydirt yet.



    Getting out-scored 5-8 and having two assists aren't exactly inspiring, but there are some very good things suggesting that better days are coming. First, on a Wild team that's 25th in the NHL in controlling puck possession, with just 44.7% of the expected goal share, Hartman is indisputably pushing play to the offensive zone.


    The Wild take 54% of the xG with Hartman on the ice at 5-on-5. Boldy and Gaudreau are the only Wild players who've done better in that regard. Even more interestingly, Hartman isn't a product of Kaprizov's presence. Granted, these are small, small sample sizes, but Hartman's thrived with multiple players so far.


    Kaprizov's driven play better with Hartman (56.2 xGF%) than without (41.5%). During 24 minutes with Eriksson Ek, the duo is at 57.9%. In eight minutes with Boldy, they grabbed 79.8% of the expected goals. Again, small samples, but Hartman isn't locked into only being effective with one player.


    With just about everyone, he's pushed the pace offensively, something Minnesota's sorely lacked at 5-on-5 this year. The Wild average 3.13 expected goals per hour with him on the ice, and 1.80 without him. It's pretty easy to see why Hartman has been on the ice for half of the Minnesota's ten 5-on-5 goals. He's already on the ice for nearly half of their expected goals at 5-on-5.


    Does some of that have to do with the opportunities he gets playing with Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek, and Boldy? Just like with last season, it sure doesn't hurt. But the thing is, Hartman's not merely riding the coattails of talented teammates. He's taking a very active role in the team's offense.


    To show this, we rely on Corey Sznajder's All Three Zones project. It's easy to say "Watch the games" to a lot of stats. Not Sznajder's. Few people watch more hockey than he does. He manually tracks shot, passing, and transition data from all 32 teams.


    Sznajder has done just three Wild games this season, and they're the ones that, generally, are considered the worst ones for Hartman and Minnesota at large. Those would be the first three games of the season, against the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, and Colorado Avalanche. Hartman got out-scored 1-6 at 5-on-5 in those three games, so it's tough to find an uglier-looking stretch.


    And yet, he still found ways to shine, aside from the puck ending up behind Marc-Andre Fleury a bunch. Hartman was a beast at 5-on-5. Kaprizov didn't lead the team in shot attempts, that was Hartman with 15. Add in another seven shot assists, and he also led Minnesota with 22 primary shot contributions. Kaprizov was second with 20.


    Those weren't just shots fired from anywhere, either. Hartman got six scoring chances on those 15 shot attempts. Add in another shot assist that went for a scoring chance, and that leads the team for primary scoring chance contributions, beating out Jared Spurgeon by a 7-6 margin.


    It's early, but all these are improvements over the Hartman who racked up 34 goals last season. He's also taken a step up in his transition game in the early goings.


    [caption id=attachment_136793" align="alignnone" width="1348]Screen-Shot-2022-10-27-at-5.13.27-AM.png Courtesy of All Three Zones[/caption]


    Kaprizov was the main puck-carrier for his line last year. Now, or at least, when they were together, Hartman's picked up some slack. Through three games, Hartman entered the offensive zone 15 times at 5-on-5. That's tied with Kaprizov for the second-most on the team (Marcus Foligno had 16 entries), and his eight entries with control (or Carry-In) were the third-highest.


    Taking an active role in moving the puck up the ice is absolutely a big reason for his good possession numbers. Better yet, he's also been exiting the zone much more than last year. In the 493 minutes Sznajder tracked, Hartman only exited the zone 43 times.


    Through three games, Hartman had eight exits, and six of them were with possession. As far as we know, he leads the team, and it can't come at a better time, given how Minnesota's struggled to break out of their own zone.


    Is this a lot of numbers to throw at you? Probably. But if we only look for the things that got Hartman demoted, that's all we're going to see. Yes, he takes bad penalties. No, he's not a particularly good defender. If he doesn't play another power play minute this season, rejoice.


    He has limitations. Maybe he shouldn't be Kaprizov's center again this year (though, again, maybe not!). He might be better suited to play on the wing. Ultimately, though, who cares? If Hartman keeps pushing the pace, fitting alongside multiple different playstyles, and keeps improving his offensive contributions, that's what you want to see. Now that Fleury appears to not be letting every mistake get past him, Hartman's good qualities should start shining through again.


    All stats via Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted.

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