Sometimes in sports, teams have to put players in a role that stretches them thin. The second baseman might not have the arm to play shortstop, but if the shortstop’s hurt, they’re moving over. Someone’s still gotta handle the ball and protect the quarterback’s blindside, even if the point guard and left tackle are injured.
That’s what Ryan Hartman went through last season. A coronavirus outbreak swept through the Minnesota Wild locker room, and suddenly they didn’t have enough centers. Head coach Dean Evason worked with what he had and slid Hartman from the wing over to center.
What was initially a temporary measure became a semi-permanent fix very shortly. As it turned out, even a healthy Wild team didn’t have enough centers. It also turned out that Hartman was surprisingly serviceable down the middle. Since taking over the role full-time on Feb. 20, Hartman scored five goals and 18 points in 38 games. That’s a decent 39-point pace from a player with a career-high of 31.
He even played well enough to start the postseason on Kirill Kaprizov’s line. The Vegas Golden Knights were able to shut down the line, but only to a point. Hartman was third on the team with 17 shots, had two goals, and would perhaps have more had it not been for Marc-Andre Fleury’s heroics.
General manager Bill Guerin rewarded Hartman with job security, signing him to a three-year deal worth $1.7 million per season in April. Guerin praised Hartman’s versatility, saying, “He’s shown the ability to play center, play wing, kill penalties, play the power play, he can score, he can fight. He can do a lot of things.”
Still, just because a player can fill in a role in a pinch doesn’t mean they necessarily should. Is that the case with Hartman?
It’s never bad to have some utility, but Hartman’s game slipped last season despite the bump in raw point totals. In his first season in Minnesota, he excelled as a fourth-line winger, driving play and pestering goalies with frequent shooting. He regressed in those categories, going from controlling 56.6% of expected goals at 5-on-5 to 51.3%, from shooting over eight times per hour to under six.
Playing center took Hartman away from his strengths and gave him responsibilities he couldn’t quite handle. He’s not a particularly great puck-handler, but the position requires him to handle the puck more often. Being the first line of defense in the offensive zone forced him to be less aggressive in shooting and forechecking.
All those things added up to chip away at his value. In 2019-20, Hartman was worth 3.1 Standings Points Above Replacement, as opposed to just 1.6 last season. That’s over a 40% drop, even after accounting for the fact that Hartman played about 90 fewer minutes than last season.
None of this is a criticism of Hartman. The problem wasn’t him; circumstances didn’t allow Hartman to be the effective winger he normally is. The Wild could reap the benefits if he can get back to his natural position.
Hartman’s first season in Minnesota was reminiscent of Marcus Foligno early in his Wild tenure. It’s hard to remember when Foligno wasn’t the anchor of Minnesota’s checking line, but that was fairly recently. It wasn’t until the 2019-20 season where Bruce Boudreau started leaning on him. In the two seasons prior, Foligno was a fourth-liner struggling to play 12 minutes a night.
Like Hartman, Foligno put up strong underlying numbers despite limited ice time, with 3.3 SPAR in 2017-18. Then, it should’ve come as no surprise that Foligno would dominate in a larger role as Minnesota’s primary shutdown winger. Could Hartman mirror that success? Perhaps, he already has two 3-plus SPAR seasons in his five full seasons.
He just needs a path to more playing time — playing time on the wing, to be precise. To do that, Minnesota’s going to have to be deeper at center than last season. Luckily for Hartman, that looks to be the case.
Joel Eriksson Ek and Marco Rossi figure to settle into the top of the lineup sometime this season. Nico Sturm should be ready to slide to center full-time after a strong rookie season. Frederick Gaudreau was signed for center depth, leaving Victor Rask as the fifth center, filling in the event of injury or Rossi starting the season in the AHL.
So, Hartman figures to be two injuries away from moving to the middle again. This leads to another question: Where along the wings will he settle?
In his first two seasons in Minnesota, Hartman showed that he’s ready for more responsibility than the fourth line. Unless Evason is looking to shake things up, though, the room might not be there for advancement. Foligno is a third-line mainstay, and Jordan Greenway has been his long-time partner. Greenway had a tough season, but Minnesota isn’t likely ready to give up on his potential. Unless Greenway moves up in the lineup, that spot isn’t clearing up soon.
So that may leave Hartman biding his time on the fourth line. Even there, though, he may be better off on the wing than playing center. Evason’s willingness to roll four lines has been his calling card. Ten forwards played over 14 minutes a night for the Wild, with an 11th (Zach Parise) playing 13:56. If Hartman can still perform, he’ll likely play, regardless of who his linemates are.
The likelihood of Hartman playing well is pretty high. He’s everything a team should want in a depth player: young, cheap, and effective. Even when stretched thin at center, he was only “bad” compared to his play as a winger. Going back to his natural position should set him up for a successful year, perhaps even with some upside.