Playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs can be an overwhelming experience. When you combine playing in one of the biggest hockey markets, with one of the biggest fanbases in the league, and on a team that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in over 50 years, you’re bound to have your every move analyzed and often criticized. You might become a treasured figure like Mats Sundin, or you could have fans starting a petition to buy out your contract as they did with Jake Gardiner.
Of all the players who have come through Toronto, there’s a small group who never found themselves in the media’s or fans’ dog house. And one of those players was Zach Hyman.
News broke on Wednesday that after five seasons with the Maple Leafs, Hyman signed a seven-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers with an average annual value (AAV) of $5.5 million. With that, I wanted to pen a proper farewell for Hyman and take a look back at his career in Toronto, and how he became the player he is today.
The Trade Where it All Began
On June 19, 2015, the Maple Leafs committed highway robbery. That’s when they initially acquired Hyman from the Florida Panthers. Hyman, who was a fifth-round pick by the Panthers in 2010, was coming off of a career season with the University of Michigan in 2014-15 when he put up 54 points in 37 games and was named Michigan Athlete of the Year. Toronto received his rights in exchange for forward Greg McKegg.
Hyman joined the Maple Leafs organization at the right time. He had just turned 23 and was joining a prospect pipeline that included William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, and Connor Brown. Not to mention the eventual additions of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews.
Despite spending most of the 2015-16 season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, where he registered 37 points in 59 games, Hyman was rewarded with a call-up and his first taste of NHL action on Feb 29, 2016. Fans will remember this day fondly, as Hyman along with almost every other notable prospect on the Marlies, including Nylander, Kapanen, and Brown, were called up together. Hyman scored his first NHL goal on Mar. 7 and gave Maple Leafs fans a glimpse of what to expect from him in the future.
From a Hard Worker to a Legitimate Producer
The 2016-17 season was one of the most exciting ones I’ve ever witnessed in Toronto, and it was when Hyman truly cemented his spot in the lineup. As the youth movement took over the roster, Hyman became a staple on the top line from the get-go. Head coach Mike Babcock was a huge fan of his game and kept him in that role, despite his limited offensive production at the time.
Finishing the season with only 28 points, his lack of production might have made it hard to justify playing in the top six, let alone on the top line. But fans knew that Hyman’s value to that line, with Matthews and Nylander, reached far beyond his offense. His ability to create space for his linemates was something the Maple Leafs had lacked for a very long time, dating back to the days of Gary Roberts.
From that point on, Hyman slowly began to round out his game. He hit the 40-point mark for the first time in his career in 2017-18 and scored 20 goals for the first time in 2018-19. When the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares ahead of the 2018-19 season, Hyman became a versatile winger who could be used alongside either top-six centre, be it Matthews or Tavares.
The 2019-20 season was Hyman’s true breakout year offensively. Between missing time with an injury and a postponed NHL season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he only appeared in 51 games. But through those 51 games, he amassed 21 goals and 37 points, which put him on pace for 30-plus goals in a full 82-game schedule.
Hyman maintained that momentum in the unconventional 2020-21 campaign with his best offensive season. Despite missing 13 games due to injury, the Toronto native became a regular contributor and produced at the highest rate of his career with 15 goals and 32 points through 43 games. The 2021 Playoffs ended in disappointment, but he was one of the brightest spots on the team in his last season.
The Time Was Right to Move On
Despite all my raving about Hyman, the Maple Leafs were right to move on. I probably would have been fine giving him the same money on a short-term deal, but the organization simply couldn’t afford to fork over that kind of salary over seven years.
Hyman is now 29 years old, and as much as we love the player he’s become, his hard-nosed, physical game has a shelf life in today’s NHL. Combine that with the lingering knee issues that have contributed to some of his missed time; he’s not a player Toronto should have been comfortable committing that kind of money and term to.
Hyman has the potential to do some serious damage playing alongside Connor McDavid in Edmonton, and he was right to ask for the money he received at this stage in his career. But his salary and the type of player who is earning it gives me serious David Clarkson vibes, and that’s not something management should have been willing to shell out. As much as I like the deal for Edmonton right now, I sense that Oilers fans will love his contract for the first three years and hate it for the next five.
Throughout Hyman’s tenure in Toronto, the Maple Leafs and their fans saw him develop from a college star to a hard-working young gun to a dependable veteran with a heart bigger than life itself. Not only was he a treat to watch on the ice, but he was also a tireless ambassador for the city and a dedicated volunteer for many charities, including Right To Play and First Book Canada.
While he may not have won anything in his time with the Maple Leafs, he has left a lasting impact on everyone thanks to his actions both on and off the ice. This includes his teammates, the fans, and the countless children involved with those charities.
I think I speak for the rest of the Maple Leafs’ contributors here at The Hockey Writers and fans across the globe when I say thank you, Zach. For your resilience, your drive night in and night out, and the impact you made on the Maple Leafs and the city of Toronto.