Ryan Hartman's Play Has the Wild Back On Track

Photo Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Wild are firing on all cylinders once again. A win over the Washington Capitals on Sunday puts them at 9-0-1 in their last ten, restoring their cushion over the St. Louis Blues for the second seed in the Central. Somewhat quietly, Minnesota is now two points ahead of the Calgary Flames, who are consensus Stanley Cup contenders.

One of the driving forces behind the Wild’s midseason turnaround is the return to dominance from their top forward line. Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, and Ryan Hartman combined for 31 points in the last ten games. Kaprizov (9G-3A-12P) rightfully gets the spotlight, but Zuccarello (1G-8A-9P) and Hartman (4G-6A-10P) are proving they belong next to a franchise player.

Hartman’s play, in particular, breathed new life into the Wild’s top unit. After beginning the season at a scorching pace, his production cooled off in January. Minnesota’s downward spiral in mid-February coincided with a 15-game span where Hartman tallied five points and was a minus-nine. It felt like the magic had worn off on his career year. At some point, Hartman was bound to regress from the ~18% shooting percentage he started the year with. However, the drop-off in his overall play was quite staggering. It wasn’t just the production that had dried up, but also his defense and overall contribution to the play.

Now Hartman is playing some of his best hockey once again with his team riding a ten-game point streak. Whether it’s setting up Kaprizov with slick moves behind the net or finishing off brilliant passing plays, Hartman is playing a much more complete game.

It’s no secret that Kaprizov and Zuccarello primarily drive the offense. They create via zone entries and high-danger setups, while Hartman relies on his positioning and sneaky-good shot to create offense. Hartman gets in the dirty areas, allowing his wingers to work their magic. It’s working for him too. He now has a career-high 27 goals on the year.

Courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com

Hartman’s 21 5v5 goals are good for fourth in the NHL, tied with Kaprizov, Connor McDavid, Matthew Tkachuk, and David Pastrnak. Not bad company for a guy who took a pay cut to stay in Minnesota for a few seasons. He’s in the first year of a 3-year, $5.1 million contract and turning out to be a bargain for Bill Guerin. Per Dom Luszczyszyn’s GSVA model, Hartman has a market value of $7.2 million, giving Minnesota $5.5 million in surplus value so far this season.

Surplus value is a staple of this Wild team, and that will have to continue for the next three seasons if they wish to remain competitive through the dead cap years. If Hartman can even half-sustain this year’s production in the following two years, his contract is good value. If he can continue to produce at a first-line center rate, it could be the single most valuable contract in the league.

Minnesota’s lack of a high-end center is well-documented, but Hartman has largely alleviated those concerns, if only for this season. His play has been nothing short of stellar, making him one of Minnesota’s most valuable pieces as the playoffs approach.

Winning a Stanley Cup without a franchise center is nearly impossible. It’s part of why the position has been so heavily scrutinized during the last few years in Minnesota. Having a bona fide No. 1 center is almost a necessity for successful playoff teams. With Joel Eriksson Ek handcuffed to a shutdown role, and Marco Rossi destined to spend the rest of the year in Iowa, the Wild must ask a lot out of Hartman to make the long-awaited deep playoff run that the franchise yearns for.

It’s clear why Hartman instantly became a fan favorite and why he decided to take a team-friendly contract to stay in Minnesota. He plays the rugged, heavy style that Evason and Guerin want to establish, but he also brings an underrated toolkit to the table. Hartman took the chance to play with Kaprizov and hasn’t looked back, having a career year alongside the Wild’s franchise talent. His rise from versatile middle-six forward to center of one of the most lethal forward lines in the sport has been quite the sight to see.

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Photo Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

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