Ryan Hartman had a fairy tale season last year. It's hard to be a journeyman at age 25, but that's exactly what Hartman was three years ago. Before landing with the Minnesota Wild, he'd passed through the Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Philadelphia Flyers, and Dallas Stars organizations. Even in his first two seasons in St. Paul, he was primarily used as a bottom-six forward.
But then, last year, the former fourth-line winger suddenly became a lethal top-line center, scoring 34 goals and 65 points. Those totals eclipsed his previous career highs by 79 and 110%, respectively. That's a mind-boggling breakout for a 27-year-old.
That kind of leap forward so late into a career should set off alarm bells of skepticism. It certainly looks like the Wild faithful view Hartman as a big-time regression candidate. In a June fan poll conducted by The Athletic's Michael Russo, 48.5% of nearly 5,000 respondents pegged Hartman as the most likely player to fall back to earth.
Considering Mats Zuccarello, Freddy Gaudreau, and Marcus Foligno also saw incredible career years, that's saying something. But outside of Zuccarello, who has a track record of being a scoring winger, Hartman is probably the most likely to repeat his breakout season.
At least, to the point where he's still a perfectly fine option to stay in his current role. Admittedly, 34 goals will be tough to repeat. Hartman did finish third in the league with 27 5-on-5 goals, behind only Auston Matthews and Kyle Connor. However, he only compiled 14.7 expected goals, which ranked "just" 61st in the NHL.
If his play doesn't dip at all, except his expected goals matching his actual goals, he will finish next season with 22 tallies. That 12-goal drop is pretty significant. There's further bad news for Hartman, too. Before last season, Hartman underperformed his expected goals for his career. He scored 49 5-on-5 goals on 51.9 expected.
So why would Hartman carry momentum from his Cinderella season? Shouldn't this all mean he's likely to turn into a pumpkin?
Typically, yes. Still, there's hope for Hartman, which comes in the form of a stocky 5'9" Russian dynamo.
Kirill Kaprizov made landfall in North America on Monday and is now back in Minnesota. Our potential long national nightmare is over, and that's better news for Hartman than anyone.
Kaprizov, and to a lesser extent, Zuccarello, draws an absurd amount of defensive attention whenever he's on the ice. When Zuccarello and Hartman are zipping passes around, Hartman's offensive responsibilities basically boil down to: get open.
That's exactly what he did last season. He got some greasy rebound goals and some more goals off the rush — both very dangerous situations — but
Call it the T.J. Oshie Principle. In St. Louis, Oshie's expected goals essentially matched his actual goals. Then he goes to Washington, with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom surrounding him, and he feasts on easy goals by finding the soft spots in coverage.
That's no knock on Hartman, either. Victor Rask couldn't do that. Even Joel Eriksson Ek, who rarely ventures from the crease to score, didn't complement Kaprizov and Zuccarello in that way.
Hartman could, giving him a fighting chance to replicate his season. And all due respect, he's not going to enter next year as the first, or even second, focus of the defense. That's perfect if Hartman can still make opponents pay for sleeping on him.
And he can, thanks to Kaprizov's presence. It's early in his career, but it already appears as though he has an outsized impact on his teammates' shooting percentages, at least at 5-on-5. Over his two seasons, the Wild have shot 11.3% with Kaprizov on the ice, which ranks 14th among all forwards with 1000-plus 5-on-5 minutes.
What's more, he's cracked double-digits in each season. His teammates shot 11.7% at 5-on-5 last year, then 10.7% the season before. It's not absolute proof that it's repeatable, but it checks out, given his absurd talent. You're not going to get lucky when you're on the ice with Kaprizov. He's going to create room for you to be a better shooter.
You can't attribute Hartman's breakout entirely to No. 97, though. Hartman deserves a ton of credit for making his own luck. Hartman shot 9.23 times per hour at 5-on-5, more than he has in any year since his 19-goal rookie season.
That shot rate ranked 38th in the league among 282 forwards with 750-plus 5-on-5 minutes, just behind stars like Connor McDavid, Andrei Svechnikov, and Brady Tkachuk. Better yet, he got that shot volume while allowing Kaprizov to be the main show (9.85 shots per hour; ranking 20th).
Assuming he keeps the same number of shots, with the baseline shooting percentage of 11.3% that Kaprizov seems to provide, and you get 19-20 5-on-5 goals. A drop-off from 27? Sure. But an even decrease of even eight 5-on-5 goals still puts Hartman at 27 goals for the season. Surely, that's no disappointment.
It's easy to understand why fans are concerned about Hartman. His 15.1 shooting percentage is absolutely an outlier. Scoring two goals, seven points, and just 2.1 shots per game (as opposed to the 2.9 he averaged last season over his last 13 playoff contests), all centering Kaprizov, is also concerning.
Keeping Hartman on that top line allows the Wild a lot of flexibility and luxury further down the lineup, though. It enables Marco Rossi to get his feet wet alongside Matt Boldy in a second-line role. Eriksson Ek gets to continue as the lynchpin of the league's best shutdown line. And say what you will about Hartman, but he sure didn't keep Kaprizov from racking up seven playoff goals in six games.
Maybe the Wild will need to adjust things by playoff time. In the meantime, though, Hartman is the best bet to stay between Kaprizov and Zuccarello. Repeating 34 goals is probably a stretch, but he should be a solid bet for 25-ish goals. If Hartman can do that and let the Wild keep spreading the wealth down the lineup, it won't matter if he's really a No. 1 center or not. He'll be a fixture on the Wild's best scoring line. As long as Kaprizov's there, that's more than enough.
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