Zach Hyman signed a new four-year contract yesterday worth an average annual value (AAV) of $2.25-million, avoiding arbitration and basically locking in for the price most assumed he would. At first glance it seemed to be a totally reasonable deal, but I was a little surprised to see the negative reaction to the news through the usual channels.
There’s a joke making the rounds about how a portion of Toronto’s base only would only want to see the team win the Cup if they can do it at the cap floor. I mean, really, a penny over that would be unnecessary and inefficient, wouldn’t it?
Kidding aside, the pushback on every Leafs deal involving any amount of money or term is rooted in seeing the organization crushed by hilariously awful contracts in the past. It’s understandable. But even with that in mind, I’m not sure how the skepticism swung so far that a player like Hyman could garner this much hostility.
Hyman isn’t a top-line scorer and clearly doesn’t have the talent-level of his most common linemates in Nylander and Matthews. I think we all understand that. But maybe we need to stop dreaming up these ideal ‘top six/bottom six’ lineups, because that entire concept, in this short time of having Babcock behind the Leafs bench, has already become outdated. Toronto has a “third line” centered by a guy who scored one goal fewer than Ovechkin this past season.
I’m going to semi-sidetrack for a minute here, but going back to the criticism surrounding Marleau signing and the Leafs’ overall situation at wing, I saw this idea emerge of just plug-and-playing undervalued free agents without any second thought for context. Why sign Marleau when you can sign a cheaper point-producer like Vanek? How about 45-year-old Jagr? I think this kind of thinking is somewhat problematic.
No matter how much some of this base cries out for the Leafs to sort a list of players by points-per-sixty and start making phone calls, it just isn’t going to happen that way. The Leafs can’t just bring in a player like Vanek or Jagr and say “Here you go Mike, make it work”. Toronto played with arguably the highest pace of any team in the NHL last season, and by most of the hints I’ve been getting, they actually want to turn that up a notch as they go forward. Players like Jagr and Vanek simply can’t fit the style and system they want to play.
Going back to Hyman…well, he definitely does fit the style they want to play. It’s why Babcock gave him those even-strength minutes alongside Matthews and Nylander. Yes, we know he lacks a scoring touch, but it isn’t like the coaching staff is blind to that. Hyman’s ice time is mostly limited evens and penalty killing. Further to that, it isn’t like management is fooled and views him as something he’s not either. They didn’t pay him like a big-time scorer, they paid him TWO-POINT-TWO-FIVE MILLION A YEAR through his 25-to-28-year-old seasons, typically prime years.
If we want to go back to this traditional view of four lines in descending skill-level, yes, I guess Hyman’s overall talent might be at the third line level, but that’s precisely how he’s being paid.
Looking down the road, over the course of this deal I see Hyman as a fit-anywhere forward who’s going to push play in the right direction wherever he’s slotted. I really like his defensive game and puck retrieval skills, and I’d wager he’ll help push teams on their heels no matter who he’s alongside. With Leo Komarov’s contract coming to an end next summer and him then going into what will be his 32-year-old season in 2018-19, it’s probably unlikely the Leafs will bring him back if he asks for more money. Instead they’ll have Hyman still in his prime and able to do a lot of that heavy defensive work if they want to fill that role internally. At $2.25-million annually (cheaper than Uncle Leo’s current contract), even if his scoring touch is questionable, I highly doubt paying that amount for that sort of utility is going to be something Toronto regrets.