Toronto is a tough market to play in. More times than not, there will be criticism and blame put on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ players for having a tough game, stretch, or season. Many players leave in free agency because the team can’t afford them or because they want less of a spotlight.
The Edmonton Oilers arguably have less of a spotlight, but unlike the Maple Leafs, they have the money to bring in players who have left Toronto in search of success. Here are three who seem to have found it.
Zach Hyman is the only player here who wasn’t chased out of Toronto by the fans. Canadian markets can be tough, given the pressure to succeed.
Hyman is a workhorse who found himself playing his first NHL game in Toronto in 2015-16 at age 23. A bit of a late bloomer, he worked hard and eventually became a two-time 20-goal scorer and reached 40 points twice in six seasons with the Maple Leafs. He also played top-line minutes alongside Auston Matthews, but since the Maple Leafs can’t afford to re-sign many players once they break out, Hyman left for Edmonton in the offseason.
The Maple Leafs and their fans quickly forgot about Hyman because they got a 26-year-old rookie in return – Michael Bunting – who outdid Hyman’s point production at a much cheaper price than Hyman got on the open market.
Since joining the Oilers, Hyman has been utilized in a more important role, which has allowed him to elevate his game even more. He has spent time with Connor McDavid on the top line, played alongside Leon Draisaitl on the second line, and even had a short stint on the third line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins since they have great chemistry. Hyman is key on the much-improved Oilers’ penalty kill, and he has set career-highs in goals (27), assists (27), points (54), power-play goals (five), power-play points (10), shots (213), and average ice time (19:28).
The Maple Leafs had their core five players. Now, Hyman is part of the core in Edmonton and finally part of a team that has won a first-round playoff series, and he is making his mark in Round 2, with four goals in three games.
Cody Ceci spent the first six seasons of his career as an Ottawa Senator. He then went to the Maple Leafs for a short-lived 56 games. His offensive stats were less than ideal, with only one goal and eight points, and he quickly became the scapegoat for the Toronto fanbase. He enjoyed a much better season with the Pittsburgh Penguins where he signed as a free agent in 2020.
Once Edmonton lost Adam Larsson to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, they needed someone to carry the defensive and physical load as a second pairing defenceman. Ceci was brought in to fill that role and considering his lack of success in Toronto, many weren’t happy.
Ceci has blown every naysayer away with his production at both ends of the ice, playing a significant top-pairing role for a good part of the season and in the playoffs. Toronto fans had to watch Ceci score the Oilers’ Game 7-winner in the first round while their team lost the winner-take-all game for the fifth consecutive season. He has been much better than anticipated and done an excellent job replacing the physicality and defensive-minded play that the team lost in the offseason. His playoff performance is exactly what the Maple Leafs are looking for as they search for answers after another early playoff exit.
Tyson Barrie suffered even more criticism in his time in Toronto. Known for his offensive talent, he had one of the worst seasons of his career as a Maple Leaf, with five goals and 39 points after scoring 14 goals and almost reaching 60 points in consecutive seasons before his arrival.
Barrie was also invisible in the playoffs, failing to record a single point after his postseason career totals of 14 points in 21 games. With the Oilers, he scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 to stave off elimination in Round 1 against the LA Kings, the game before Ceci made his mark.
Barrie showed a lack of production on the power play in Toronto as well, a problem he hasn’t had at any other point in his career when he was given an opportunity. Part of the trouble was the management brought in a power-play specialist when they already had Morgan Rielly, who was very capable on the man advantage, and Barrie was given less of an opportunity.
When Barrie arrived in Edmonton, they were in desperate need of a defenceman to run the point on the power play after Oscar Klefbom suffered a major injury. Barrie did spectacularly and led the NHL in points by a defenceman. Unfortunately, his defensive play wasn’t very good, and he didn’t receive one Norris Trophy vote, but he turned a corner in 2021-22 and stepped up his game defensively while still being a solid offensive contributor, including on the power play (from ‘Tyson Barrie shrugs off naysayers over his defence on Oilers blue line,’ Edmonton Sun, Nov. 7, 2021). As a big weapon in the Oilers’ arsenal, Barrie plays a key role in working the puck.
Based on expectations, some players can’t handle or want to deal with the stress and pressure of performing consistently at a high level in a market like Toronto. Those expectations will never change for an Original-Six team that people either love or hate and is at the centre of the hockey world. That is why teams like the Oilers can benefit from taking chances on former Maple Leafs, and so far, it has paid off.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with NHL Stats News, trade talks, and daily betting guides.
You can find more of his work here.