On Oct. 7, after his Toronto Maple Leafs lost 3-2 to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, head coach Mike Babcock addressed the media. His first comment was simple: “Hyman’s good, eh”?
One can only guess what was on the coach’s mind immediately after a close loss. But, my guess is something like this: “Tonight we needed Zach Hyman in the lineup. He might have made the difference in this game.” By the way, it was a game in which the Maple Leafs played well, but lost.
Although we can’t know for sure what Babcock was thinking, it pretty easy to guess what Babcock was telling fans. It’s this: When Hyman is ready to return from his injury, his old job will be waiting for him.
And it seems as if Hyman’s rejoining the lineupmight be coming in about three weeks. The initial timeline had Hyman coming back in late October, but he’s been skating with the team so there’s a small chance he might make a faster return than expected.
There Are Few Players like Zach Hyman
There are very few players like Hyman. The longer he’s is out, the more I’m convinced the team needs him. He has both a motor that runs full throttle and will power that won’t quit. As a result, he’s successful at a job few other NHL players do as well: he works his rear off harassing opposing players until they make a mistake with the puck in their defensive end.
Often the result of Hyman’s persistence is an opposition turnover that leads to a Maple Leafs offensive chance. That’s why Babcock loves his play so much. In fact, in a tweet on Oct. 2, 2017, Babcock called Hyman the best fore-checker in the NHL. (By the way, if you look at this tweet, note the fans’ reaction underneath it.)
Granted Mike Babcock Is Stubborn, But…
Give Babcock credit. He has an idea of what an elite line should look like. And it didn’t turn out to be Mitch Marner – John Tavares – Kasperi Kapanen. Kapanen simply might be too offensive: he wants to skate fast and shoot lots.
Instead, in Babcock’s mind, every line needs a digger – someone who will simply go after pucks and won’t stop until he gets them. That guy for the Maple Leafs is Hyman.
A year after the 2017 tweet reporting Babcock’s belief that Hyman was the best forechecker in hockey and exactly a year before Babcock’s comment about Hyman after the Blues’ game (Oct. 7, 2019), Babcock also revelled in Hyman’s ability. What’s interesting to me is that Babcock seems incredulous that people refuse to give his hard-working forward credit, so Babcock takes it upon himself to celebrate what he sees as Hyman’s unrelenting will to simply work hard.
I have also included that tweet below. Again, what’s interesting to me
However, this season, because Hyman’s not in the lineup, it might be easier to see why Babcock’s faith in Hyman is warranted.
This Season’s Early Fill-ins
Given what’s happened this season with the team, Hyman seems to be the missing link between the Tavares line operating successfully or not. Hyman has been on the IR (injured reserve) for the first part of this season as he works to rehab a surgically-repaired knee that he had played with for many games last season, but that only became public after the team had been eliminated from the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Boston Bruins. In his place, the team has used Kapanen as the partner for Tavares and Marner.
For reasons one can only speculate, Kapanen hasn’t worked well as a replacement. Until his goal on Oct. 16 in a losing effort against the Washington Capitals, Kapanen hadn’t scored a point all season. And, given that he’s playing with offensive talents like Tavares and Marner, why not?
Partnering Kapanen with Tavares and Marner seemed like a wise choice. Why Kapanen hasn’t worked out well in that role is a surprise. I’m sure his lack of production wasn’t an expectation. Finally, during the Wild game, Babcock watched the Tavares line come up empty for a few shifts. Then he made a change that worked immediately.
He dropped Kapanen to the third line and promoted Trevor Moore to play in his place. If anyone on the Maple Leafs plays like Hyman, it’s Moore. That move was instrumental in propelling the team to victory that night.
Related: Zach Hyman Suspended Two Games
Given what I’ve seen this season from the team, I don’t think there was a chance that Hyman – when he’s ready to return to the lineup – would play anywhere else except in the top six. Because Babcock is such a strong fan of the 27-year-old’s game, it is almost certain Hyman would return to his prominent position in the lineup.
What Happens When Hyman Returns?
When Hyman returns, he’ll likely not come close to his last season’s totals of 21 goals and had 20 assists in 71 games. However, for Hyman, it isn’t as much about his numbers as it is about how he helps those around them increase their own numbers.
Hyman’s value to the Maple Leafs is as a complement to the scorers. And, from what it seems like this season, the team suffers when he’s out of the lineup. After all, someone has to give the puck to the goal-scorers.