TORONTO — “Hyman’s good, eh?”
These three words from Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, spoken in the wake of Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, scream volumes.
Those who like to scour for deeper context could read it as a light jab at critics who undervalued Zach Hyman’s 2018-19 contributions to the club’s top line, featuring the more celebrated duo of Mitch Marner and John Tavares.
Others may wish to interpret it as light criticism of how Hyman’s placeholder on that trio, Kasperi Kapanen, has fared while the natural left winger finishes recovery from the torn ACL he suffered (but still skated with) during the playoffs.
At bare minimum, take it as Babcock’s guarantee that Hyman’s old job will be right there waiting for him when his knee does get the green light from Toronto’s cadre of doctors, specialists and sports scientists.
Hyman, who has poured himself into rehabilitation since undergoing reconstructive ligament surgery in April, rejoined practice with the main group last week and feels encouraged by the progress.
While no one within the Leafs’ walls will say his readiness for game action has been accelerated — GM Kyle Dubas has cautiously estimated a November return — that’s certainly the player’s hope.
“You don’t realize how much you’ll miss it until you’re out for a bit,” says Hyman, who’s been watching games from the press box. “It’s hard to watch because you want to be in there and playing, but it’s easier to watch when you’re winning.”
The last couple contests, both blown-lead home losses, have been more of a strain on the eyes. And the numbers through this small four-game sample, particularly at even-strength, have underscored Hyman’s chemistry with his linemates.
Over that span, Marner and Tavares have combined for just three even-strength points total. Kapanen, a 20-goal scorer gifted with an opportunity to start the season in the top six, has zeroes across the board.
He’s a team-worst minus-4 and the only Leafs regular still searching for a point.
“We’ve just got to figure it out over time because we need them to be dominant, as you know,” Babcock said. “Everyone’s just got to figure it out and keep working and grinding.”
Kapanen’s early offensive struggles have been amplified by a pair of critical gaffes in his own zone.
Saturday, it was his thrown stick that led to Montreal’s game-tying penalty shot and Max Domi calling him an “idiot” and a “moron” during a giddy chirp that went viral.
“I don’t think it’s anything personal. It’s just hockey. Two guys passionate about the game. I’m sure it’s entertaining for everyone else,” Kapanen said.
“I know what to do. There’s not much to it. It’s still hockey. I know how to play hockey. I just have to get into the groove.”
Monday, it was a savvy Blues defenceman activating way down low to the left of Frederik Andersen’s crease during a cycle, sneaking away from Kapanen (his check) and snapping the game-winner.
“It’s my guy,” Kapanen said. “I should’ve seen he was going that low.”
“Chief (coach Craig Berube) brought that in and we’re moving a lot more on the blue line,” Pietrangelo explains of the set play, knowing full well it catches defending wingers off-guard. “It’s frustrating (for them). It’s even tough for the D when the opposing D’s coming in. The more movement we have, the better we are.”
Ironically, the same goes for Kapanen, whose speed was celebrated on the bottom six but has yet to establish himself as a top-of-the-lineup threat.
“He’s one of the faster guys in the league,” says Marner, who admits his line hasn’t quite gelled. “He creates a lot of pressure on D-men when you get it in, and it’s something we’re trying to work to our advantage.”
Babcock argues that the mere fact the Leafs are now playing Kapanen 18 minutes a night and throwing him over the boards on both special teams should be evidence enough they have faith in the 23-year-old.
“The great thing about this game is that when you play good, you get to play more. I think it’s just a process for the guy,” Babcock said.
“Last year he started on the fourth line, and he played in the playoffs on the second line. Anything he did, we liked. Now, we’re evaluating him, and he’s evaluating himself. That’s the problem with being a good player — once you set the bar, you’ve got to keep raising it.
“He’s playing with different players, but just because you’re playing with different players doesn’t mean you’ve got to change things. He’s got to be at the net, he’s got to get pucks back for them on the forecheck, on retrieval races.”
To be fair, Kapanen is working with just one full season of NHL experience and has been thrown onto his unnatural left wing, though he won’t use that as an excuse.
“Not saying our line’s been bad, but we haven’t been at our full potential — at least I haven’t been. Just gotta pick it up, play the right way, and good things will happen,” Kapanen said.
“My own game hasn’t been there yet.”
Kapanen is owning his mistakes, which is a good thing.
But he’s also wearing his frustration. Quick with a quip when his spirits are high, he’s been decidedly downbeat the last few days and says he appreciated Sunday’s day off to free his mind of hockey.
He’ll have another day off Tuesday, either to dwell or forget.
“We don’t blame anyone when we lose,” Marner reminds.
“Kappy, he’s going to continue to progress,” says Hyman, encouragingly.
The coach’s favourite left winger doesn’t want Kapanen to do his best Hyman impersonation. The Finn, Hyman figures, is better off just being the best version of his edgy, speedy self.
“We didn’t talk about it much. He kinda just does his own thing. We’re different players, so he’s going to do his thing,” Hyman says.
“Your role doesn’t necessarily change with whatever line you’re on. You just do what you do best and complement your linemates with what you do.”
A question has been raised, though: In the interim, is Kapanen the best complement to Marner and Tavares?