It was supposed to be the William Nylander show.
With Mitch Marner tucked away safely in junior, draft picks being hoarded and the Leafs currently sitting in dead last, the NHL debut of William Nylander was one of the few things worth looking forward to in Leafland this season.
Nylander’s debut wasn’t bad, considering he’s taxed with being the Swedish saviour of the franchise. Young free agent signing Nikita Soshnikov seemed to be involved the entire game. Kasperi Kapanen, who has that, “I was traded for Phil Kessel” stone of shame/triumph chained to his neck, almost potted his first two NHL goals, as well.
Which brings us to Zach Hyman, who also made his NHL debut Monday.
I recently spoke with Kyle Dubas, assistant GM of the Leafs and GM of the Toronto Marlies. I also spoke with Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe. I asked both of them who the most pleasant surprise has been on the Marlies this season.
The first player both mentioned was Zach Hyman.
"I've known Zach for a long time," Dubas said. "He's been excellent for us in all regards. He's one of the best penalty-killers in the league. After a slow start offensively, he's really started to come along and is producing very well. He's top 11 in the league in scoring for rookies."
Hyman began his season with the Marlies by putting up just three points in his first 10 games, but he has recorded 30 points in 44 games since.
"He's a tenacious worker, excellent on the forecheck, and not just getting there and rattling guys around on the forecheck, but getting there and getting the puck back and letting us play on offence, which to me is the key thing. Possession-wise he's one of our best players, if not our best player, and now he's starting to also score."
That to me was the biggest bomb. The Toronto Marlies lead the AHL in goals-scored with 227 and only one other team has 200. The Marlies sit atop the AHL with 90 points in the standings while the two teams tied for second only have 74. Consider that and the fact that Hyman is one of the Marlies' best possession players, if not the best? That's saying something.
This is what I loved about Monday night. If the Leafs wanted to, the Leafs could have called Nylander up at almost any point this season and caused a scene. Heck, odds are he would've helped the big club score a goal or two. Instead, the Leafs debuted seven names, five of them 23-years-old or younger (six if you want to include Garret Sparks), and showcased a broader picture of the future.
Granted, half of the team is injured or has been traded, so the flood of youth was a bit of a necessity, but they showcased the future regardless and it includes Zach Hyman.
Sheldon Keefe explained how Hyman has managed to fly under the radar.
“There’s obvious attention put on players like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown – guys that have generated many reasons to be excited about them. But there are definitely players like Zach Hyman who’s a guy that when you come to the rink, or in my case, when you watch the video back, you just see that he stands out quite a bit, doing everything right all the time. Some players are extremely gifted and their statistics perhaps reflect that.
Some players just grind, and work, and are strong, they do it right all the time, and that’s Zach Hyman."
So how did the Leafs get Hyman? I'd be willing to bet most fans, even the hardcore ones, don't remember.
On June 19, 2015, just a few days before the 2015 NHL Draft, the Leafs traded Greg McKegg to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Hyman and a conditional 7th-round pick. The Leafs picked McKegg 62nd overall in the 2010 NHL Draft while the Panthers snagged Hyman 123rd overall that same draft.
I'd love to tell you how awesome that trade is for the Leafs, or how great it's going to be someday, but it's too early to tell. Both Hyman and McKegg are 23-years-old and spend most of their time in the minors. Let's not get too excited.
Although based on those quotes from Dubas and Keefe, the Leafs seem plenty excited already.