Skipped over two times in the NHL draft, he eventually heard his name called as a 20-year old freshman in the NCAA in his third (and final) year of draft eligibility. Fast forward almost a decade later, and he’s one of the best defensemen in the NHL.
Development is not linear, and some players take a little longer to develop than others. Toews is just one example of that.
Another example is recent Avalanche 6th round pick Jeremy Hanzel.
Passed over in the previous two NHL drafts, he finally heard his name called at pick 187 last month by Colorado.
Some players might be found sitting around on draft day, waiting for their phone to ring. Not Hanzel. He had no plans and treated it like another day, but he knew that the season he just had in the WHL put him in a good position to get drafted.
“Having a good season last year just brought my expectations (of getting drafted), not super high, but brought them up higher than they were previously,” he said.
That chill attitude sounds like Jeremy, according to the people that know him best.
“He’s pretty even-keeled,” Seattle Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said. “I think that speaks to his demeanor. Nothing rattles him too much. He’s going to keep working and moving towards his goals.”
As someone who has been coaching in the WHL for a decade, and a part of the hockey community for over 30 years, O’Dette knows that there are multiple paths to the NHL. The draft is just one of them, and Hanzel was keenly aware of that.
“I think we’ve had some good examples on our team of guys getting drafted in their second and third time around, signing free agent contracts as an overage or 20 year old,” O’Dette said. “He knows that there’s different ways that you can get to your goal. (He) didn’t really get phased when he got passed over in the previous draft.”
After a solid first two season in Seattle, Hanzel really took off last year. The Thunderbirds were stacked, but a big part of that was the 20 year old defenseman’s development and growth. Heading into the season, their defense contained three NHL draft picks, including two former first round picks. Even with all that talent, Hanzel’s stellar play separated him from the crowd.
“He had a huge role on Seattle’s D-core,” a WHL scout told me. “Seattle did a great job of running their top 5D. All had great roles. The eye opener for me was that he stood out even on a stacked D-core with many NHL picks, so it was a no-brainer for me that he’ll be picked this year.”
During the regular season, Hanzel broke out, shattering his previous career highs in goals, assists, and points. He led the WHL with a mind-boggling +70. You can say what you want about plus/minus, but when the next closest player to you on your own team is a +50, you’re doing something right.
In the playoffs, he took it to another level.
The British Columbia native produced 22 points in 19 games, eight more points than the next closest defenseman on the team, and helped the Thunderbirds take home the WHL title. That sort of play is just not something NHL teams can turn a blind eye to.
“(He) just kept adding tools to his toolbox, to the point where NHL teams couldn’t ignore him anymore,” O’Dette said.
The thing about the “high character” Hanzel is that he can do a little bit of everything. Seattle trusted him in all sorts of situations, and he repaid their trust with a big year.
“I think he’s a really smart player,” O’Dette said of Hanzel. “His skating has come a long way. I just think his versatility is a big strength. He can play on the powerplay, he can provide offense, he can shut down other teams top players, he can play physical, he’s really good on the PK. I think he doesn’t have a glaring deficiency where you can’t trust him in a situation during a game. I think that’s very valuable to have in a defenseman.”
Kind of sounds like the previously mentioned Toews, right?
As a 20 year old, the Avalanche have a choice to make with Hanzel. He can either turn pro and start his professional hockey career now, or they can send him back to the Thunderbirds for his overage year. Colorado management said they’ll take their time this summer making that decision, but have acknowledged he was one of the standouts at development camp earlier this month.
“Hanzel, I thought, showed really well,” Avalanche Director of Player Development Brian Willsie said. “He had a long run with the Memorial Cup going that long, so he hasn’t been training a ton, and just came in here and showed really well.”
His coach back in Seattle wouldn’t mind getting him back for next season, but knows if the Avalanche decide he’s ready, he’ll succeed.
“I think he is (ready),” O’Dette said. “Obviously, it’s up to what Colorado wants to do with him, and what they feel is best for his development. I think there’s benefits to him playing pro, and if he does get sent back, there’s benefits to him playing junior. He’s capable of playing in the American League. As long as there’s opportunities for him to get ice time and to play, he’s capable of doing it.”
That might be what it comes down to – opportunity. As of right now, the Avalanche have 7 defensemen signed to play in the NHL, and 8 in the AHL. On top of that, there’s a realistic chance Colorado looks to add another NHL defenseman this summer. That would create even more of a log jam in the AHL for playing time. While Hanzel looks like he’s ready to take that next step, the situation might not allow for it.
That next step is what he wants, though.
“I think I’m ready for pro, yeah,” Hanzel said. “Just doing everything I can to be prepared for that.”
If he shows up for rookie camp and performs just as he did at development camp, he may not give the organization much of a choice.
But there might be no one more proud than the coach whose watched his incredible growth over the last three years.
“It’s rewarded to see guys that have really dedicated themselves and finally see it pay off,” O’Dette said. “It was rewarding to see Jeremy get picked, and I’m excited to see what he does next.”