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.
If you replace ‘offense’ and ‘defense’ with ‘creating space’ & ‘closing space’, u get diff understanding of hockey @iyer_prashanth
— Jack Han (@ml_han) October 25, 2016
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.
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.