I don’t think anyone will argue that Martin Hanzal is a better player than Jason Spezza. I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Hanzal is potentially more valuable to the Dallas Stars than Spezza. The Stars hired Ken Hitchcock for one reason above everything else: structure. They hired him to bring structure back to a talented group that had almost none when 2017 ended. He has, and the scratching of Spezza serves that end no matter how crazy it makes fans feel.
Why does Hanzal stay in the lineup playing key minutes when he doesn’t do much of anything offensively? The main qualities he brings nightly are being big and winning faceoffs, but he does serve more of a purpose than that. Hanzal is going to do exactly what Hitchcock wants him to do. He’s accountable in all three zones, plays his role in the system to a T, and knows who he is as a player.
Spezza isn’t scoring, but I haven’t seen a single quote saying he was scratched for not scoring. Mike Heika had these quotes from prior to the game on MLK Day:
"We need to hit the reset, enough with the talks," Hitchcock said after the team took a 3-2 overtime win over the Boston Bruins. "Let's get going, and let's start playing the way we're capable of. He can do this stuff, he's shown the ability to do this stuff, but we can't keep having conversations and no results. We've had the conversations, there is consequences with it, now let's play. […] "I don't think it's challenging at all," Hitchcock said. "He knows what he needs to do better."
Hitchcock didn’t throw him under the bus. He didn’t air any dirty laundry. He simply told the press he made the decision because he isn’t seeing what he wants to see. He never said what he isn’t seeing though. It’s easy to assume that he’s referring to the lack of offensive production. Brett Ritchie plays regularly and pulls power play time but can’t score to save his life this season. I find it hard to believe that this was largely about production.
Evidence to support this does exist.
If you go to that timestamp in the video you see one piece of evidence. If they’ve had conversations all year you can bet it isn’t nearly the only thing Hitchcock and company have noticed. After the win in Detroit, Mike Heika pulled this quote about Spezza:
"He protected the puck, he skated with it, he made plays, he was strong on the dot, he was really competitive dot to boards," Hitchcock said. "He's a big guy, that's how he's got to play."
Spezza scored two goals Tuesday night. Hitchcock didn’t make a reference to either one of them when praising Spezza’s play in any post game comments I’ve come across. I would venture a guess that the scratching had nothing to do with offense. Hitchcock is clearly coaching him up to play to his standards of what success looks like. We can debate whether or not those standards are ultimately correct, but in that room it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hitchcock is going to demand the same basic standards of play from Jamie Benn down to the last man on the roster.
It may seem silly, but accountability matters. Tyler Seguin has bought in. John Klingberg has bought in. Alexander Radulov has fit like a glove. We know how well Benn has played. There is no reason Spezza can’t attack the details of the game the way Hitchcock wants. No player is going to be perfect. Scoring droughts are going to happen. Details and accountability never have an excuse for leaving though. When they do over a long enough period of time, you get a season like 2017.
Hitchcock was hired to bring accountability to the Stars. He was always going to bring players in to be his foot soldiers down the lineup. Hanzal is a perfect example. Tyler Pitlick is another. He got Benn and Seguin on board last April. If you look at it from Hitchcock’s perspective there is every reason to expect a player as talented as Spezza to be able to fit. It would be unreasonable for Hitchcock to have different expectations.
So no, of course Hanzal isn’t more valuable to the Stars than Spezza. Of course Spezza is a more talented player. Hitchcock needs him to buy in fully and be at his best every night whether he’s scoring or not. When the playoffs get here the Stars are going to need him at his best in all facets of the game, and Hitchcock did what he felt like he needed to do. With or without the goals, Spezza responded in a big way against the Red Wings.