Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
In Game 2 of the Marlies playoff series against the Albany Devils, Zach Hyman showed up in a big way. He netted two goals, helping the Marlies overcome the early 2-1 lead acquired by the Devils. A lead which they were unable to alter in Game 1.
Earlier in the season, Hyman was introduced to a lot of Leafs fans. Many are already aware he was acquired by the Leafs from the Florida Panthers for former Marlies depth forward Greg McKegg. Hyman had refused to sign in Florida, and as such, the Panthers were forced to move him on the cheap. The Maple Leafs happened to be the beneficiaries of that.
Many are also aware that Hyman is a local boy and, as such, he was more than willing to ink a deal in the town he grew up in, with the team he grew up cheering for.
He came up after the trade deadline alongside top tier prospects like Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander. Many were confused as to why a player playing a 3rd line role with the Marlies would be more deserving of a spot on the NHL club than the more skilled players like Connor Brown or Brendan Leipsic. The offensive gifts of those players are constantly on display at the AHL level. And yet the Leafs give Hyman the bigger opportunity?
Let me propose my theory as to why that was.
We all saw flashes of Zach Hyman in the NHL. It was amazing to see his speed, his management of the puck in the offensive cycle, his forecheck, and his tenacity around the net. Not to mention, he posted a 53.86% CF% and a 52.33% xGF% (both numbers 5v5 and Score, Zone and Venue adjusted) and scored three goals in his 16 games. Pretty solid for a rookie, and especially for one without the pedigree of his blue-chip peers.
But why did this come as such a surprise?
DIFFERENT PLAYERS HAVE DIFFERENT ROLES
Now, I’ll admit I’ve previously laughed off this argument in the past. We’ve all heard it touted that Frederik Gauthier playing 4th line center for the Marlies makes sense since he projects to be a 4th line center for the Leafs. We’ve also heard the argument that Mitch Marner shouldn’t make the Leafs because he’s a “top 6 guy” and they don’t have room for him in the top 6 (even though they most definitely do).
These can be silly arguments. But take the time to consider mine for Zach Hyman, if at least for a second.
When Hyman plays for the Marlies, he’s a 2nd or 3rd line winger, behind Brown, Leivo, Leipsic, and sometimes Soshnikov or Kapanen. If he’s one of their most NHL-ready wingers (which I believe he is), why isn’t he the best one down there? Why isn’t he playing on the first line and dominating the AHL?
It’s because of roles. And in Zach Hyman’s case, his suits him perfectly. He possesses physical tools that translate seamlessly to the NHL. Think of the top 5 things that a skater needs to be a capable role player in today’s NHL. For me it’s:
- Puck control
- Play reading
- Defensive coverage
Hyman covers all of these in an excellent fashion, at both the AHL and NHL levels. He, however, doesn’t possess any of the slick agility that Brendan Leipsic has, or the accurate shot and playmaking skills of Connor Brown.
This means, that even when he’s playing for the AHL club, he’s playing in a depth role. And that’s okay. It’s good for the Marlies, to have a player that’s perfectly capable of that role playing in it. This is as opposed to teams in the past who have had more skilled players like Brandon Kozun playing in those depth positions. While they’re capable, they’re better served playing in more offensive roles at that level.
Hyman is the weird case where he isn’t better served to play more offense. It’s just fine that he is a third line player because he’s damn good at it.
What the future holds
Obviously, I don’t possess a crystal ball. I can’t predict the future without using the most exhaustive advanced stats model available. So I’m going to try to estimate his future, as opposed to predicting it.
The future, in that realm, is pretty simple. Zach Hyman can be a good, cheap third liner for the Leafs for as long as he stays good and cheap.
The minute he asks for more money, you move on and find the newest, hottest thing. Like your next car purchase; once it stops being worth the money, you get a new one. This kind of replaceable depth model is one the Leafs will plan to execute for the foreseeable future. And bringing up players like Zach Hyman is part of that.
So Don’t be Disappointed
Hyman may have a smaller role on the Marlies than a Leipsic or a Brown, but that doesn’t mean he’s not as ready. It just means he’s ready to do something a little different.