After a poor start to the season from Mitch Marner and John Tavares at even strength, there was a fair amount of speculation that Hyman was the secret ingredient that is key to the line’s success, the underlying factor in what allowed the two offensive stars to dominate their competition.
I think that’s a bit of a dubious conclusion to draw after such a short stretch of games before Tavares was injured, and now Marner is hurt right as Hyman re-enters the lineup, so it’s not like we can immediately test that theory. However, both due to what Hyman brings and how much the coaching staff likes him, his absence probably hurt the Leafs over first month of the season.
To figure out how much Hyman impacts the Leafs, let’s isolate the biggest strengths in Hyman’s game and look at how the Maple Leafs performed on average with him in the lineup last season and without him in 2019-20.
This will be an imperfect analysis because the Leafs have changed the way they play significantly from last season, but it’s still worth looking at how much things changed without him on the ice.
Based on the highly visible way the Hyman plays the game, you could be tricked into thinking that the area in which the Leafs miss him the most is in their forechecking, but as I’ve noted in recent pieces, the Leafs have leaned more heavily into forechecking this season than any other season under Babcock.
Hyman has a fantastic ability to put pressure on opponents with his speed and tenacity, forcing mistakes on the forecheck that his teammates can capitalize on, but the areas where he’s missed are not what you’d expect.
While Hyman is by no means a high-end goal scorer, over the last several years he has been an excellent net-front presence, constantly recovering rebounds and putting the puck back on net. He converts on a lower percentage of those shots than an average forward does, but by virtue of getting so many more high-quality chances than almost every other forward in the league, he has improved his goal total each year he’s been in the NHL and finally hit 20 last season despite missing 11 games.
I don’t think it can be laid entirely at the feet of missing Hyman, but the Leafs have fallen from producing the second-most inner slot shots in the league per minute at 5-vs-5 last season, to the 28th-most so far this season. That is a catastrophic fall in effectiveness that Hyman’s return should at least help to remedy.
Along with the extra forechecking the Leafs have leaned into, they’ve actually improved their ability to recover rebounds this season despite losing their best player at accomplishing that task, but they’ve had trouble turning those recovered rebounds back into high-quality chances.
The other major drop for the Leafs with Hyman out has actually been generating scoring chances off the rush, which sounds strange but I have a hypothesis as to why this is occurring.
Hyman is known for his effectiveness off the forecheck, but he actually led the Leafs in the number of chances that occurred off the rush while on the ice last year. In fact, he posted one of the highest marks in the entire league.
Last season, overall the Leafs generated the third-most rush chances at 5-vs-5 in the league, this year they’re down to 16th, and I think a big part of that is the coaching staff’s belief that losing Hyman’s forechecking pressure needed to be accounted for by a change of style. As other players were directed to push the play with forechecking, they ended up doing so while sacrificing their attacking off the rush.
Last season, the Maple Leafs dumped the puck in on their offensive zone entries 46.7 per cent of the time, and this season it’s up to 54.8 per cent. That will necessarily lead to more forechecking and in turn, more scoring chances generated off the forecheck, along with fewer chances off the rush.
As we mentioned though, despite being a great forechecker Hyman was also one of the top drivers of chances off the rush last season, so what was happening there?
My hypothesis on this is that Hyman’s forechecking pressure is a known quantity around the league, and last season teams were assuming that his line was going to dump in pucks and try to force them into mistakes down low. This allowed Marner and Tavares to carry the puck in with wider gaps significantly more often with Hyman driving the net to give them even more freedom to create high-quality shots. By trying to compensate for the loss of Hyman’s forechecking, the Leafs have nerfed the biggest benefit of having him in the lineup: the extra space off the rush he creates for his more talented linemates.
It’s possible that now that he’s back on the active roster, the Leafs get back to playing offensively in a similar way to last season, but the full effectiveness of his line is likely going to be limited significantly until Marner returns from injury himself.