Dallas Stars: Martin Hanzal’s Return Leaves Stars With Tough Decisions

DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 16: Petr Mrazek #34 of the Detroit Red Wings talks with Martin Hanzal #10 and Radek Faksa #12 of the Dallas Stars during warm-ups prior to an NHL game at Little Caesars Arena on January 16, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 16: Petr Mrazek #34 of the Detroit Red Wings talks with Martin Hanzal #10 and Radek Faksa #12 of the Dallas Stars during warm-ups prior to an NHL game at Little Caesars Arena on January 16, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images) /

When players return from injury, it’s typically a welcomed sign by teams. But now that Martin Hanzal has returned to the Dallas Stars for the first time this season, the team has some tough decisions to make.

Reinforcements are supposed to be a blessing for hockey teams. But, as of right now, the Dallas Stars’ reinforcements could be putting them in a tight spot.

Earlier in the week, it was announced that 31-year-old Martin Hanzal would be returning to the Stars lineup by the end of the week. After missing the 6-6, 230 lb. center for the first 28 games of the season, the news came as a welcomed relief at first.

It’s been an interesting journey for Hanzal since he signed a three-year, $14.25 million contract ($4.75 million AAV) with Dallas in the summer of 2017. After undergoing spinal fusion surgery during the 2017-18 season that cut his year drastically short with just 38 games played and 10 total points, Hanzal endured a long-term recovery process.

It took months and plenty of patience as Hanzal rebounded back to his usual speed and style. But, as the month of November came to a close and Hanzal began skating with the team and attending road trips, it was clear that the big center was close to his return.

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And now, that return seems to be upon us. Jim Montgomery noted at practice that Hanzal has been medically cleared to return to action and could be a player in the Stars’ next game on Friday night against San Jose. If he isn’t, he will likely return to the ice on Sunday when Dallas visits the Vegas Golden Knights.

But where will he fit? That’s the question that comes into play and is also the one that faces the Stars with a challenge.

As a 14-year veteran making close to $5 million for the season, Hanzal won’t be serving as a healthy scratch, at least to start his season off. He will need to be slotted into the lineup.

When in, Hanzal’s biggest strengths lie within his size and position. He’s arguably the best face-off man on the Dallas Stars roster, provides an edge on the penalty kill using his size and back-checking abilities, and can serve as a solid screen forward in the offensive zone and on the power play. His height and weight give him a boost and allow him to aid a Dallas lineup that could always use offensive size and bite.

So, if Hanzal likely slots into the lineup at the fourth line center position, the Stars will have an offensive dilemma on their hands.

Though they already waived Gemel Smith on Wednesday morning to make room for Hanzal’s return from the IR list, they still have 14 forwards to fit into 12 spots. That’s where things get interesting.

In their 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers, Dallas lined up like this on offense:

Jamie BennTyler SeguinJason Spezza

Devin ShoreRoope HintzAlexander Radulov

Valeri NichushkinRadek FaksaTyler Pitlick

Mattias JanmarkJason DickinsonBrett Ritchie

Gemel Smith, Blake Comeau

With Comeau missing Monday’s game for the birth of his third daughter, he will likely be back in the lineup on Friday night. And with Smith being replaced by Hanzal, the puzzle gets all the more complicated.

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Dallas Stars: Hanzal, Ritchie have redeemed themselves with recent play
Dallas Stars: Hanzal, Ritchie have redeemed themselves with recent play /

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  • If you move Hanzal into the fourth line center spot, where does Jason Dickinson go? He’s been one of the Stars’ most consistent depth forwards this season and has cemented his spot in the starting lineup. So, do you move him to the wing? We’ve seen in the past that Dickinson is a natural center and doesn’t necessarily play his best hockey on the left side, so that could pose a problem in his production.

    But, with Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, and Radek Faksa being staples in the dot for Dallas, it might have to be done. After all, Hanzal’s ability to win a high percentage of his face-offs (55.1 percent last year) make him a prime candidate to earn a center starting spot.

    So, if Dickinson moves to the wing, who do you push out of the lineup? Remember that two names must be healthy scratched with the Dallas Stars having 14 on the roster right now.

    Nichushkin seems like an obvious choice at this point. After re-signing with the team this past summer, he’s the only forward that has yet to score a goal this year and has skated in 22 games. He was scratched on Saturday afternoon in Vancouver and didn’t do anything to stand out in his return against Edmonton. Look for Nichushkin to be a candidate for healthy scratch in Hanzal’s return.

    But who else goes to the press box? Hintz seems like another logical candidate considering he is an AHL call-up, but he’s impressed since being called back up on Nov. 18. He’s scored two goals and tallied three points in his past nine starts while only skating an average of 11:30.

    What about Ritchie? He’s had an incredibly slow start to the season, but scored the game-winning goal and tallied an assist against Edmonton after being scratched for five games in a row. He also brings physicality and hustle to the lineup and can be paired with just about anyone.

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    That leaves us with Mattias Janmark. After an impressive rookie year in 2015-16 and an even better 2017-18 campaign that defied the odds following a season-long absence while recovering from a serious and rare injury, Janmark seems to be stuck in a rut. He’s skated in all 28 games with Dallas this year, but has only put up one goal and eight points. That’s not typical for Janmark, who is known for being one of the team’s best goal scorers (15 goals in 2015-16 and 19 goals in 2017-18). He’s doing a lot of the little things the right way, but cannot seem to generate consistency offense. Maybe he needs a healthy scratch game?

    With Benn, Seguin, Radulov, Shore, Spezza, Comeau, Faksa, Pitlick, and now Hanzal being guaranteed starters for the most part, it doesn’t leave the Dallas Stars with a lot of easy options.

    This is a problem that the Stars have to meet head-on and soon. With the handful of injuries that they were dealt early in the year, their younger “fill-ins” have earned their stripes and are making decisions tough. Coaches enjoy having to make these kinds of choices, but it’s never an easy choice.

    If Hanzal does return to the lineup on Friday night, which Dallas Stars forwards are coming out? Even more so, which forwards are still on the roster come next week?

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    It’s a fun debate to have, and we have until Friday when the puck drops against the Sharks to bounce the idea around.

    We’ll see what Monty has in store.