If you took a glance at the National Hockey League’s top goal scorers, it would take you some time before you scrolled all the way down to find Zach Hyman. Along with teammates Andreas Johnsson and Morgan Rielly, Hyman’s 20 goals this season are tied for 109th in the NHL.
The 26-year-old reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career on Mar. 25 against the Florida Panthers, doing so in his 65th game of the season.
Over the course of his first three seasons, Hyman has improved from 10 goals to 15 to 20. The second half of 2018-19 has been particularly strong. Since Jan. 1, he ranks third on the Maple Leafs in 5-on-5 goals with 10. Only John Tavares (14) and Auston Matthews (13) have more. Only 34 players in the NHL have scored more at 5-on-5 since the calendar turned to 2019. Hyman also ranks fifth on the team in points at 5-on-5 since Jan. 1 with 20, ahead of William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Kasperi Kapanen and Nazem Kadri.
While this marked improvement in burying the biscuit is good news for Leafs Nation, it’s more than just that one skill that makes Hyman an invaluable player and perhaps the Maple Leafs’ most under-appreciated player.
Hyman’s Work Ethic Unparalleled
If there’s one person who truly understands Hyman’s value, it’s head coach Mike Babcock. He plays the Michigan University alumnus a lot, not just with linemates Mitch Marner and John Tavares, but also on the penalty kill. Hyman averages 2:18 of ice-time per game while shorthanded, the most of any Maple Leafs forward.
This is because Babcock trusts him. Why? Because of his no-quit attitude. Hyman’s motor never stops. He just keeps going and going and going, whether it’s hunting down the puck on the forecheck, out-racing a pinching defenceman to chip a puck up from his own zone, or back-checking through the neutral zone. Hyman is often on the ice to help preserve a lead in the final minutes of close games. It’s why he leads the NHL with six empty-net goals.
“Keep grinding and working, and that’s how you never stay satisfied. You just try to keep getting better and better,” Hyman told Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star last week when asked about his improvement on the stat-sheet. “That’s important, because nowadays you see all the young guys coming into the league and you have to keep getting better and better.” (from ‘Leafs Hyman works hard for the twenty’, Toronto Star – 3/27/19)
Hyman’s numbers this season at 5-on-5 are improved across the board. His goals per 60 minutes (G/60) are up from 0.68 to 0.78. His shooting percentage is up from 9.63 per cent to 10.48. His number of individual scoring chances per 60 minutes has improved too, from 8.29 to 9.48.
When his work doesn’t lead to a goal or a chance for him or his linemates, it often leads to power play opportunities. He ranks second on the team along with John Tavares in drawn penalties at 5-on-5 with 17, which is inside the top-50 in the NHL. Nazem Kadri (18) is the only Maple Leaf who has drawn more calls in 2018-19.
Hyman also doesn’t turn the puck over very often, with the fourth-lowest giveaways per 60 minutes rate on the Maple Leafs, at 1.33.
Hyman Opens Up Space for Marner and Tavares
It’s no secret the Maple Leafs have generated a high number of shots on goal and scoring chances this season. They rank second in the NHL in unblocked shot attempts for at 5-on-5 (3,132) and first in scoring chances for (2,164), nearly 200 more than any other team.
The Hyman-Tavares-Marner line has combined to score 51 goals at 5-on-5 this season, the second most of any trio in the league. While Tavares — with his career-high 47 goals — and Marner — with his undeniable creativity and play-making ability — get much of the glory, Hyman makes a lot of their wizardry possible. He chases pucks and he often gets them to his more skilled peers and heads to the front of the net.
Thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy’s shot maps at HockeyViz.com, we can see that with Hyman on the ice at 5-on-5 this season, the Maple Leafs’ offensive threat level (measured in unblocked shots for) increases significantly.
Without Hyman on the ice, the threat level is nine per cent higher than the league average. With him on the ice, the threat level is 33 per cent higher. Also of note is where most of the red is: right in front of the net. He’s not just helping create offence from the perimeter but most of it is generated from high danger areas.
Hyman Will be Key in Playoffs vs. Bruins
In last spring’s seven-game playoff series against the Boston Bruins, the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill was an abysmal 66.7 per cent. In the four games against the Bruins this season (the Maple Leafs went 1-3), the PK was once again just 66.7 per cent (8 for 12).
That can’t happen again if their fortunes are going to change this postseason. Not all of that is on Hyman, but he’s a big part of the penalty kill, so he will need to do what he can to help it improve.
While special teams will be a factor for whoever wins the opening round series, let’s not forget that most of the game is played at 5-on-5. Hyman’s ability to pressure the Bruins’ defence and force them to cough up the puck will be huge, especially when you know it’s an absolute certainty that the Bruins will be doing the same to the Maple Leafs’ defencemen.
Time and space is at a premium in the playoffs. If Hyman can continue to give Marner and Tavares just an extra second here or there in the offensive zone, it could go a long way to coming out on top.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.