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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What to expect from Zach Hyman this summer

Zach Hyman has created an interesting legacy in his Toronto Maple Leafs career. He went from being a “who the heck is that guy?” when he was acquired from Florida for Greg McKegg, to a scapegoat for being the odd man out on some dominant lines in the Leafs first few seasons, and has now gotten praise from just about everyone, being looked at as someone who belongs and thrives in a top six role.

Hyman missed the first month of the 2019-20 season due to an ACL injury he acquired midway through last year’s playoffs (note: he still played games after that injury), which was lucky for him, because he only had to endure four games of Babcock. Not that it would’ve mattered anyways though, he’s always been a favourite of Babs.

Despite all the time missed, Hyman didn’t miss a beat, and even managed to tie his career high of 21 goals in 20 fewer games this season (a 33 goal season if he played all 82 games), all while being the top penalty killing forward AND one of the best forecheckers on the team, maybe even the league.

By the Numbers

Despite his reputation, Hyman isn’t actually much of a two-way forward. His offensive abilities are in the 91st percentile of the NHL, while his defense is in the 27th percentile, nowhere near the status of someone who has gotten Selke votes in the past (he’s had two in 2016-17, and two in 2017-18, including a first place Selke vote in 2016). He’s also only had one season with a positive defensive GAR, that being his 16 game stint in the 2015-16 season. His penalty killing is also mediocre at best, as his CA/60 and xGA/60 on the PK rank 98th and 53rd amongst forwards with at least 50 minutes on the PK, and is nowhere nearly as good as Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev.

Which is funny, considering that he’s more known as a defensive specialist who has no hands, when he’s actually a terrible defensive player who is pretty good at finishing.

You could chalk that up to the fact that his linemates are supposedly “one-dimensional” players, but shockingly, when you isolate his numbers, his defensive play is still pretty bad. However, his offensive abilities are definitely prominent, and it’s nice to know that that doesn’t just come from being an elite forward’s linemate.

He probably shouldn’t get any power play time though, just throwing that out there.

However, it seems that he does rely on his linemates more often than not when it comes to transitioning the puck up the ice. While he’s successful at it when he does do it, he rarely does it to begin with. But that’s not something I’d get mad at him for. If anything, I’d be getting mad at him if he was skating the puck up the ice when he has a perfectly good Auston Matthews or William Nylander right there to pass it to.

What We’ve Seen So Far

One thing Hyman has really improved on over the years is his hands and finishing ability in tight. Too many times in his first couple seasons we saw him whiff on chances, but he’s done a lot better there now, and even thrown in some flair from time to time. He’s still had his fair share of empty net goals, but relies on them a lot less now.

That said, Zach’s bread and butter has always been when the puck is along the boards, as can be seen several times on this shift alone. He’s hard to knock off the puck, something that has been essential to the success of our top lines over the last few years.

How Will He Do Against Columbus?

Hyman is far from the most impactful player on the Leafs, but he has some strong x-factor potential. Every team that goes on a run has one surprise player who has a great playoffs, and Hyman could very well be that player for the Leafs. While his production in 2019 against Boston was held to one goal, he was also injured, and shutting down the Bergeron line. But, in 2017 and 2018, he had four points in each series, so we could see him get three or four points over this best of five series against Columbus.

He might also end up facing top competition depending on what line he plays with, so I’d hope that we see a similar performance to last year, where he held the Bruins top line to a combined 10 points at even strength. He won’t be facing a line of that caliber against Columbus, but the Blue Jackets will still have their fair share of talent to limit. As long as his defensive performance isn’t what we usually see from him, that’s all that matters.

Playoff Expectations

As I mentioned before, every team on a Cup run always has that surprise breakout player, like Lars Eller or Bryan Bickell. Hyman could certainly be that kind of player for the Leafs, and transform them from a tough matchup to a Cup contender.

If he produces similarly to his 2017 and 2018 playoff performances, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Hyman somewhere in the 15-20 point range if the Leafs go all the way, but that’s not all he’ll be relied on. Part of why the Leafs have been ousted early in the playoffs every year has been their poor special teams, and while the power play under Keefe has been one of the best in the league, the penalty kill has still been pretty middling. If Hyman can step up his play there, the Leafs will have a much better chance of going all the way.

Hyman has always been surpassing his expectations to the point where he is now a legitimate top six forward. The next step for him to really blow people at this point is to be a big force in the playoffs, and while a quiet Hyman won’t be the death of the Leafs, a strong performance could help the Leafs take that next step.