Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What We Learned: Zach Hyman wants to be a Leaf long-term, but can they afford him?

Welcome to The Leafs Nation’s year-(so far)-in-review series in which we talk about something we learned about each player on the team this year. Today, we have Zach Hyman’s breakout season and his next contract. 

It wasn’t that long ago that Zach Hyman was viewed as a boat anchor. A lot has changed since then.

Back in 2016-17 when the Leafs saw an influx of highly-anticipated rookies join their roster, Hyman was nothing more than a guy. It was all about Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner and William Nylander, the dynamic trio that was going to turn the franchise around. You had to dig pretty far to find talk about Hyman, a former fifth-round pick the team had acquired in exchange for Gregg McKegg.

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That season, Hyman got plopped alongside Matthews in a top-six role. Everybody wanted to see Nylander, Matthews, and Marner form a line, but Mike Babcock opted to put the team’s first-overall choice with this random depth player instead.

Hyman would become a very polarizing figure. There were those who supported Babcock’s decision to place him with Matthews and Nylander because he added a physical element to their line. But there were also those who felt he didn’t have the skill to keep up with them and that he was actually weighing them down.

Fast-forward a few years and there really isn’t much debate about Hyman. He’s a key part of this Leafs team and he very clearly makes them better.

Hyman put up 21 goals in 51 games this season, impressive given the fact he missed the beginning of the season after undergoing off-season surgery to repair his ACL. Had the season not been cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hyman would have shattered the 21-goal career-high he set in 2018-19. You could pretty easily make the argument that he would have hit the 30-goal plateau if not for the pause.

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As I said, a lot has changed since he was just some guy who Auston Matthews dragged around to a 10-goal rookie season.

At just $2,250,000 against the cap, Hyman is a ridiculously nice bargain. Unfortunately for the Leafs, he isn’t going to be that cheap forever. Hyman is set to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career next summer and he’s due for a pretty significant raise.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Hyman outright said that he wanted to remain a Leaf for a long time. He’s a local kid, he grew up cheering for the team, and all of his friends and family live in Toronto.

But things aren’t always that simple. As we know, the Leafs are walking the tightrope when it comes to the salary cap and they don’t have a hell of a lot of room to work with. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic will more than likely result in, at best, a stagnant salary cap (the nightmare scenario is a decrease in the cap ceiling) over the next few years as the league compensates for 2019-20’s lost revenues.

The Leafs already have roughly $68 million committed for the 2021-22 season, which is when Hyman’s next deal would begin. Under normal circumstances, you could assume the cap ceiling to be as high as $90 million by then. But, more than likely, it’ll be stuck at $81.5 million.

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There’s no doubt that there’s mutual interest in Hyman remaining a Leaf. We know that he wants to stick around and we can reasonably guess that the team wants to get him signed too. It just isn’t going to be easy. Either the Leafs are going to have to clear room for him or Hyman is going to have to take a discount on his next contract.