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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

2016-17 Leafs Season in Review: Zach Hyman

Who would have thought that Zach Hyman, who was brought over in a meaningless trade (what’s up, Greg McKegg), would become such a polarizing and divisive figure in Leafs Nation?

Is he good? Is he bad? Is he in over his head? Well, I guess you could answer ‘yes’ to any of those questions and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. Hyman is very good at certain things, very bad at other things, and most definitely in over his head playing with offensive catalysts like Auston Matthews and Willy Nylander.

Whatever you think of the player, he definitely brings ‘something’ to the team. Let’s find out if the positive outweighs the negative.

Strengths

I know a number of us writers here love to focus on the numbers, but one thing that I’m sure many appreciate about Hyman is that the guy just works. 

You never hear him complain, you never see him freak out or yell on the bench or go off on the media. Zach Hyman just shows up every day, does exactly what he’s told to do, and then goes home. Again, I don’t really know how much stock to put into that, but you have to think that his teammates, coaches, and management really appreciate that kind of attitude.

As we all know, Hyman spent the vast majority of his season on Auston Matthews’ wing. We also know he had one well-documented job, which was to get Matthews (and/or Nylander) the damn puck.

In theory, this is a great strategy. Mike Babcock loves to have a number of different elements on his lines, and it’s not hard to see the appeal of a guy like Zach Hyman playing with two insanely high-skill, yet different, players in Matthews and Nylander. Sure, let Hyman do all the dirty work while #34 and #29 do the rest.

Here’s a perfect example of this actually working. Hyman gets in deep, mucks it up, gets control. Matthews grabs the puck, easy feed to Nylander, who does the rest.

Another great thing about Hyman is that he plays huge amounts of minutes on the PK, as he logged the most shorthanded time-on-ice of any forward with 223 minutes. Now, there are debates as to whether or not he’s as good a penalty killer as he’s made out to be, but he definitely does do some things well on the kill. One of them is his knack for scoring shorthanded goals.

Hyman had four shorties this season, which is impressive. He does have some shortcomings on the PK (which we’ll get to soon) but personally, I love seeing players go for it while down a man.

All in all, we’re talking about an ultra low-maintenance, blue-collar type player. He does what he’s asked to do, and he does some of it very, very well.

Weaknesses

I’m going to start with something that’s not exactly a weakness of Hyman’s, per se, but a flaw in the way we think about him.

Like I mentioned, Babs loves having different elements on lines, which is absolutely fine. The issue with Hyman is that he brings literally *one* element, which is puck retrieval. There are a few issues with this.

First of all, Matthews and Nylander are both amazing at regaining the puck. Hell, there are few players that I’ve seen who go after the puck harder and successfully regain it more than Matthews. The argument then becomes ‘well, Hyman saves Matthews and Nylander from going into the corners’. You know what, fine, I buy that for Willy. Matthews, though? Not a chance. The guy is listed at 6’3, 215 and is likely still going to put on some more weight. You’re really worried about a guy that size, with his smarts and skating ability, getting worn down behind the net or in the corners?

The second part of this is that once Hyman has done his job, he just sort of… goes away. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

Yes, Hyman scored here, I realize that. However, it’s not hard to see who created the goal and that more often than not, this isn’t going to go in. Also, there’s the part about Zach Hyman basically being Michael Grabner in front of the net, which I’ll get to in a second.

Anyways, we see here that Hyman dishes the puck, then just… waits. He doesn’t provide any sort of behind the net option or support. He just waits for Matthews and Nylander, two unbelievably skilled players, to make something happen. Now, it worked here, but think of all the times those two could have used someone like, say, Josh Leivo or Nikita Soshnikov – two similar players to Hyman with much more skill – to provide them more options.

Think about this in terms of basketball. Teams love guys who can ‘space the floor’. Basically, it means that someone has to cover them because they can shoot from deep and create their own offence. Hyman rarely hurts the opposition, which means the opposition can focus most of their attention on Matthews and Nylander. Again, I’m not advocating for the nuclear option’ of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, but a winger with more skill would relieve much of the pressure and add another dimension.

Another thing I want to talk about is Hyman’s complete lack of ability to finish from in front of the net, something that Dylan Fremlin and Ian Tulloch discussed on Dylan’s podcast.

Zach Hyman had 134 shots at even strength. This is where they came from:

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good sign. The closer to the net the shots are, the better. The issue is, though, that he shot under 4.4% on these attempts. How is that even possible.

Was he unlucky this season? Sure, I think I could have scored at a higher rate on these shots, and that’s not because I’m good at hockey, it’s because these shots tend to go in. However, no one will be able to convince me that Leivo or Soshnikov wouldn’t have scored at a higher rate from this area, along with bringing more dimensions to the line.

Lastly, I’m convinced that Zach Hyman is overrated as a penalty killer.

The Leafs penalty kill finished 10th in the NHL at 82.5%. Zach Hyman played the most shorthanded minutes of any forward in the league. Unfortunately, correlation does not equal causation.

Hyman allowed the third most shot attempts against on the Leafs while PK-ing, with a CA60 of just under 119. #ActuallyGood penalty killers like Connor Brown and Leo Komarov allowed 94 and 98, respectively. So, if Hyman was actually not great on a top-10 PK, what gives?

Well, Frederik Andersen’s .900 shorthanded save percentage ranked fourth of all goalies who had played at least 200 shorthanded minutes. So, was Zach Hyman the reason the Leafs’ PK did so well? No, I don’t think so. That isn’t to say, however, that he was a detriment to the team while shorthanded. Maybe he just needs a reduced role to be as effective as he possibly can.

I know it sounds like I’m really low on him as a player, but I’m not. I just think he’s in over his head, playing with teammates who he doesn’t fit with skill wise. Is he a perfect third liner? Yes, I think so. One of the better fourth liners in the league? Absolutely. Teams should want to optimize every single roster spot they can, and that’s where I think Hyman fits best.

Looking ahead

Of course, one thing we’ll be looking out for is if Hyman starts the season on Matthews’ wing. We all know about the amount of depth that the Leafs have on their wings, and it’s hard for me to believe that Zach Hyman is the best option for the first line.

Also, Hyman is currently an RFA, so we’ll see what kind of contract he signs. I can’t imagine the Leafs handing over long term and big money, but we’ll see. I wasn’t exactly expecting a seven-year deal for Nikita Zaitsev, either.

I think it’s fair to say that we can expect a better offensive season from Hyman in 2017-18, assuming he continues to play on the first line. His shooting percentage is due to regress upwards, and I do think that playing the entire season with skill players has made him a better player.

The question remains, though, “is he really the best option on that line?” We’ll know what Mike Babcock thinks in a few short months.

  • The Russian Rocket

    Re: Matthews doesn’t need Hyman to get the pucks for him because he’s 6′ 3″, 215lbs… fair point on the surface but 1) the less wear and tear for Matthews the better (Aaron Ekblad is bigger and already has 2-3 head injuries from retrieving pucks behind his own net) 2) I don’t want a 40 goal scorer in the corner, I want him alluding checkers like a big papi boss

    I think this is a good read and I think it’s important to question Hyman but ultimately he was a rookie with a 4.4% shooting percentage so I have trouble drawing conclusions.

  • Stan Smith

    I watched the GIF you showed, and waited for Hyman to disappear, but he never did. After going behind the net to provide puck support that I guess you must have missed, seeing as you thought he disappeared, he then did one of the toughest jobs in hockey. He went to the front of the net, and stayed there, taking all the punishment that went with it. I saw him the whole time, and never once did he disappear.

    You charted Hyman’s shots to show that he gets penetration in the offensive zone, but didn’t chart the oppositions shots when he is on the PK. Using Corsi as the only way to rate a player is suspect at the best of times, but to use it as a sole way to rate how he does on the PK is worse. What is the quality of those shots? How many of them did he block?

    • Gary Empey

      Even after getting to closely watch Babcock’s style of coaching for 2 years, most if not all the writers on this site have no clue as to why Babcock is considered the best coach in the NHL. There is still constant questioning of Babcock using a strong checker on every line. The writers here think replacing the checker with a more offensive player is a much better way to win games. Neither Nylander or Matthews would have had the terrific years they had without Hyman on their line. When Hyman is in forechecking both Nylander and Matthews know the opposition D is going to have to rush their attempt to move the puck out of the Dzone. They are then waiting to force a turnover in the oppositions end.

  • Schtickontheice

    Former college player thrust into duty on the first line in spite of the masses’ cries that he is more suited to a roll further down the line up. Wonder who that sounds like?