Martin Hanzal driving Coyotes' future -- even if you didn't notice

At 28, Martin Hanzal is in his ninth NHL season. Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty Images

TORONTO -- For too long to remember, this was Shane Doan's team. And then Keith Yandle's before Oliver Ekman-Larsson arrived.

Now the excitement is directed at the future, with tantalizing talents Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Tobias Rieder doing their thing this season. And wait until Dylan Strome, Brendan Perlini, Nick Merkley and Christian Dvorak get their chances over the next few years, among other youngsters in the Arizona Coyotes' pipeline.

Somewhere in between those generations of players stands perhaps the club’s most overlooked and underrated player, who for whatever reason doesn’t get the kind of leaguewide recognition he probably deserves.

"Ever," Doan said Monday morning at Air Canada Centre when that point was raised regarding teammate Martin Hanzal. "He never does. Look at our division, we’ve got Joe Thornton, [Anze] Kopitar, [Ryan] Getzlaf, there’s some big centermen that are physical. To have a guy like Marty on your team makes a huge difference. We lost him last year, and that was probably the beginning of the end for us. He’s probably out most important forward."

The 28-year-old Czech native leads the Coyotes with nine assists in his first eight games this season, but he was certainly not the focus of attention from the large Toronto media corps.

After all, Domi was set to play his first NHL game in his hometown Monday night, and naturally that was the big story -- as it should be.

But even if it wasn’t, Hanzal just isn’t the kind of guy who generates much of a spotlight. Which is fine with him.

"That’s all right, I don’t care about attention. I just want to win and play," Hanzal said, smiling, as we sat for a chat Monday.

Down the hall in the Maple Leafs' dressing room, former Coyotes teammate Daniel Winnik's eyes widened as I asked about Hanzal’s lack of recognition.

"I completely agree," Winnik said. "When I was leaving there, he was really starting to come into his own. You could see it as a young age, big guy and it took him a while to understand how big he was and protect it. He plays with a little mean side to him. I think he’s a very underrated shutdown guy that’s also offensive. I would easily put him in the top 10 to 15 guys in the league for shutdown centers."

At 6-foot-6 and 226 pounds, Hanzal is a handful when he’s in beast mode.

"Consummate pro," said a scout via text from a rival Western Conference club. "Very similar to [Michal] Handzus in his prime. So reliable defensively and on faceoff, etc. Now being asked to contribute offensively and stepping up to the plate as he always seems to do in a difficult environment."

He’s Mr. Everything for head coach Dave Tippett.

"He’s a big, strong centerman who can play against the other team’s top players and really be a stabilizer in your lineup," Tippett said Monday. "It’s a prerequisite to being a good team. He’s missed quite a few games over the last few years, and it really accentuates the impact he has on the game when he’s not there. Our team looks different when he’s not there. He’s a real reliable guy for our young players, he’s really bought into the leadership role. We know we have to grow as an organization, and he has to be one of the drivers of that growth.

"He’s come back this year very motivated, healthy, fit, and you’re seeing the results early in the season."

Season-ending back surgery last season limited Hanzal to 37 games, but he needed it done to get right.

"It was a pain in the ass the last couple of years," Hanzal said of the disk pain in his back. "I feel great now, and hopefully it’s going to stay that way for a while."

The Coyotes wanted to make sure Hanzal stepped it up a notch with his offseason workouts so that his abdomen was as strong as possible to relieve pressure on his back. The club sent its strength and conditioning coach to the Czech Republic for three days in July, and what was obvious was that Hanzal was working out like crazy. It shows early this season with a terrific start in all areas.

"He’s the guy who takes the big faceoff, he’s the guy that’s in front of the net on the power play, he’s the guy who sets people up because he passes the puck so well," Doan said. "And he’s mean, he’s not an easy guy to play against. I really admire the way he plays and enjoy him a lot."

Hanzal is centering a line between youngsters Rieder and Duclair.

"He’s the big centerman who can play against any line in the league," Rieder said. "He’s so good defensively, a good playmaker, really tough to play against. There’s a lot of good things to say about him."

Added Duclair: "He’s so good over 200 feet, and he creates so much room for us out there. He really doesn’t get enough credit around the league for the player he is."

Hanzal, despite being 28, is already in his ninth NHL season. It’s why he has taken it upon himself to try to pass on whatever wisdom he has to the Coyotes kids.

"I remember when I was young, Shane Doan was helping me a lot. I’m kind of in that situation now with these young kids," Hanzal said. "The biggest thing I’m trying to give them is: Bring it every night, that’s the key, it’s what great players do. I’m trying to tell him that if they want to be great players, bring it every night."

You just have to watch Hanzal play to know that he follows his own advice.