Zach Hyman has been a major find for the Leafs

Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY SPORTS

It’s probably fair to say that, outside of the big-name trio of draft choices that will make up the core of the Leafs for years to come, the best additions the team has made in the last two years have been that of Zach Hyman and Nikita Zaitsev. I say that mainly because these moves were essentially nothing-for-something: In the case of Hyman, flamed out prospect McKegg was sent to Florida, and for Zaitsev the only cost is cap space. They basically just went out and got these guys with hopes of them becoming strong support pieces, and they’re already living up to that billing without question.

In the case of Hyman, while his quick ascent into the pro game has been undeniably impressive, he still has plenty of detractors. There are questions over his offensive production and overall puck-skills, and since Babcock has glued him to Auston Matthews’ wing all season, the scrutiny takes on another level. That’s all fine and good. Debating over top-six versus bottom-six players is something we’re used to. But with the way the league is now, and particularly how the Leafs are structured, is this becoming a waste of time? 

I’ve argued in the past about Babcock being an imperfect coach and having some blind spots (Hunlak, of course), but I don’t think this is one of them. Matthews is a handful of goals from Sidney Crosby in the Rocket Richard race, and given how the lines seem to be clicking all year, I’m going to trust the coach on this one. But it isn’t just blind trust. I think Zach Hyman is a good NHL player, and he’s earning every one of those minutes.

There’s a funny clip on the final episode of that EPIX Winter Classic show where Nazem Kadri ribs Gardiner and Rielly about how easy it would be for him to play defence. Gardiner jokingly replies with “You’d like it when Lucic is coming down at 1000-miles-an-hour? That’s fun? When Zach Kassian is coming down on you?”

It’s probably an overlooked element of the game, and obviously it isn’t quantifiable, but this sort of stuff matters. Being a defenceman at times can be terrifying, and guys like Lucic are a reason why. Hyman, despite being listed as 2-inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter than the Oilers’ overpriced forward, brings about a lot of that same uneasiness with how he bears down on defenders, I think.

I’ll remember this goal for the rest of my life for two reasons: It’s Matthews’ first, and it happened right in front of me. It’s also total chaos. Because that’s basically what Hyman does, he creates chaos with his relentlessness. If you go back and look at all of Matthews’ goals at even-strength, you’ll see how Hyman factors in on so many of them by just being a dog – first to the puck, creating panic in front, backing off defenders, and just creating space. At times I even get uncomfortable watching him chase down chip-ins because he’s such a force. It’s a lot of speed and nastiness heading for the end-boards.

It’s easy to understand why Babcock has been insistent on keeping the duo of Matthews and Hyman together at 5-on-5, and that bears out in the numbers.



Again, I’m using Lucic as a comparison here because, for one, he’s been a very good player to this point in his career. But it’s also because these guys, while far apart in salary and establishment in the league, are billed similarly in one regard: They’re supposedly here to compliment a young generational center by opening up ice for them. You could argue Hyman has done a better job of that this season. 

If you look at Hyman’s linemates at evens, to no one’s surprise he’s played most of his time with Matthews (at 457 minutes), Nylander (260 minutes), and Brown (196). In fact his next most-common linemate after that is Mitch Marner, at just 26 minutes. He’s out there alongside fine players constantly, but it appears he’s doing his part to elevate them as much as they are him.


From Corsica.Hockey

Now, admittedly, Matthews’ time without Hyman is limited so we obviously have a small sample size, but overall this bubble plot shows that these most-common linemates have fared better with Hyman than without him at even-strength in terms of pushing the puck in the right direction – the metric here being score-adjusted Corsi percentage. 

And while Babcock hasn’t used Hyman on the powerplay pretty much at all, there’s probably a simple explanation for that: He just doesn’t have to. Send the super-skilled guys out there with the man-advantage to control the puck and sauce it around, they have the additional space to work with in that situation. But when it comes to rolling three balanced lines (no distinct top and bottom six) and throwing the opposing team into disarray, at even-strength Hyman looks to be the perfect compliment to a shot-generating machine like Matthews. And it’s hard to see that being broken up any time soon.

  • jimithy

    It is incumbent on management to instruct Rielly on the advantages of being able to hit the net not the backboards with the puck. Then, when that has been perfected, guided instruction on how to take a simple slapshot should be gently, so as not to offend anyone, worked into the schedule. After all, paying someone for not being able to do the job properly is not logical.

    • Puddy

      No so much of an issue from mid ice at the blue line because the rebound off the boards can create havoc. However when they shoot from near the boards and miss it can be like icing the puck on yourself.

          • Stan Smith

            I might have worded it differently, but Rielly still does need to work on his defensive game more. You can tell Babcock knows this, watching him on the bench talking animatedly to Rielly following some of his defensive gaffes. It is good to see Gardiner’s all around game starting to come around. Rielly is getting better though, and hopefully Babcock can work his magic on him too.

          • Glen

            I agree and promise that will be my last rant at Rielly I guess I am getting as bad as the Hunlack thing. Rielly has lots of talent I just hope he puts it all together soon. Go Leafs Go

          • Slater

            Not sure why we are all talking about Rielly, but he’s actually been decent in his own end this season. His problem is giving up the blueline too easily therefore leading to more time spent in the Dzone than necessary. Kid is 22 and playing against the games best, while penalty killing and no PP time. This is a non-issue, we are probably a top 10 team by the seasons end, he’ll get to experience playoffs, we’ll watch him grow. This shit is great.

          • Harte of a Lion

            Glen we are all entitled to our opinions. I believe under Babcock’s tutelage, Reilly will become the best he can be. Remember this is the first year (out of 4) that #44 has been surrounded by talent. He is slowly improving the defensive side of his game and to expect more from a 22 year old who has played for 3 coaches while while playing for a team in turmoil is unreasonable.
            Even a star talent like Ekblad will struggle when his team struggles or management are idiots.
            Thanks for your contributions, keep posting and remember, Opinions are like ass holes, everybody has one.

  • The Russian Rocket

    I think people are nervous about guys who specialize in forechecking because sometimes that means they play like David Clarkson – who was hard on the forecheck but mainly rushed in and hit guys. When the forecheck is focused on the body it is a long-game of hoping to wear down the defense. Sometimes it’s effective but sometimes it’s a waste.

    However, when a forechecker focuses on the puck – like Hyman – and is as relentless as he is, he’s absolutely worth putting alongside a finisher like Matthews.

  • LukeWarmWater

    Ryan good article. The tenacious pitt bull forward who is relentlessy on the puck is indeed extremely valuable. As you and others have pointed out that tenacious style leaves the opposing defencemen looking over their shoulders. The constant grinding and hitting of the opposition in their own zone does cause havoc, especially around the goalie and as you point out this is where the strong Matthews can get a lot of his goals. It also results in retaliation, drawing penalties, pissing off your opponent and thus taking his mind off the game. Hyman is an agitator but in a solid hockey sort of way. A Layd Byng type of agitator rather than the cheap shot Emelins and Marchands of the game.

    The analogy in basketball is that big forward who just crashes and bangs the board, draws hard fouls, and simply wears down the opposition. This type of player really doesn’t get as much credit as he truly deserves. To quote old Don, a good Canadian kid living in Toronto what more do you want in a hockey player.

  • Stan Smith

    Welcome aboard the Hunlak express. Here we have an article about a a player that while less talented than his linemates, has a skillset that is just as important, while at the same time, taking the time to denigrate two other players, that are also less talented, but also have an important skillset.

    In relation to Gardiner’s quote, the player best suited to handle having Lucic or Kassian bearing down on them is Polak.

    You complain about Babcock’s blindness in relation to Hunlak. I believe you have it backwards and the blindness isn’t Babcock’s at all, but your own.

    As for the article, I agree wholeheartedly with Babcock’s assertion that every line needs an energy player. Hyman fulfills that role on that line to a tee, just as Komarov, Martin, and to a certain point, Marner does.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      When Ryan runs his analytic programs he always concludes the only players that are any good are those that can score goals and get assists. One would have thought after watching the Leafs during the Kessel era he would have realized there is a lot more to hockey than just scoring goals. One would have thought just watching Kadri shut down McDavid there was more to hockey than just scoring goals. If the rest of the team played with the same energy as Hyman we would be first overall.

  • LukeDaDrifter

    Article states Hyman is a major find. When reading the article, this strikes me as a back-handed compliment.

    The article goes on to say, we acquired him essentially nothing-for-something. Then goes on to state Hyman has plenty of detractors. Who are these detractors? Article states he is a support piece. What actually is that? Isn’t it a team game? Are teams made up of a couple of stars and everyone else is a support player for those stars?

    Article says there are questions over his offensive production and overall puck-skills, since Babcock has glued him to Auston Matthews’ wing all season. Article states Babcock hasn’t used Hyman on the powerplay. It doesn’t mention he is intricate part of the penalty kill. The penalty kill doesn’t generate that much offense. Is that the reason so many people don’t place much value on it? He doesn’t mention Hyman, like others, is in his first NHL season. He has 5 goals and 13 assists. 18 points total. He is tied for 11th overall in rookie scoring. These are respectable numbers for a rookie.

  • 4EVER67

    It’s guys like Hyman that are the glue that makes this team go,Brown,Sosh,Martin and even the goat is showing promise and guess what we have more on the way is this team looking good or what,This is going to be one very good team very very soon.On Rielly I also feel that he has to start putting all together he does seem to give up the blueline and sometimes he seems to throwO the puck around the boards when he had the time and space to settle things down and when he goes to clear the puck make sure it gets out.Rielly is a really good defenseman but to be that guy that #1defenseman these are the little things that separates the best from the rest !!!GROW LEAFS GO!!! I’ve been here since 1950 seen it all and all I can say is success is on the way we have heart haven’t seen that since 67,Oh sorry 93 showed heart, then we flatlined until NOW!!! My guy is MITCH KILLER MARNER this is going to be the game breaker just like #93 enough talk Cheers Leaf Nation !!!GROW LEAFS GO!!!