Quick Shifts: Why ‘dominant’ Hyman is scoring at a star’s pace

Watch as Artemi Panarin puts a great dangle on Alex Biega to score and then celebrates with a leg kick.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Someone owed somebody a column.

1. When Zach Hyman awoke from ACL surgery last summer and stared at a half year of gruelling recovery, goals certainly weren’t the goal.

“You try not to think about that stuff. You try to live in the moment, in the day. That’s really important mentally. When I got hurt, I knew it would be six months. You can’t think about what’s it going to like when you come back to play. You can only think about getting ready. Doing what you have to do on that day,” explained Hyman, sitting down Friday after practice.

“I didn’t think about production. I just wanted to come back and be a hockey player again.”

Turns out, Hyman — he who makes less than a quarter what his linemates earn — is now a hockey player producing at an incredible clip.

Typically cast as the muscle to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner’s magic, Hyman has 21 points over his past 22 games and has been filling the net this season at a head-shaking 0.44 goals-per-game rate. That’s the 24th most prolific pace league-wide (10 games minimum), behind only snipers Matthews and William Nylander on the Leafs and ahead of lamp-lighters like Brad Marchand, Elias Pettersson, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Not only do the late-starting winger’s 14 goals project to a 36-goal campaign had the knee not prevented him from playing all 82, but, at 27 years old, Hyman should increase his goals and points totals for the fourth-straight year.

Not too shabby for a guy who used to get playfully chided for padding his numbers with empty-netters (hey, coaches trust him when the game’s on the line) and can get pigeonholed as a penalty killer and puck-retrieval artist.

“He has a specific kind of game, likes to forecheck. He’s extremely good at it,” Matthews says. “But I think now he’s kind of hanging onto the puck more.”

Yes, that’s a result of the Sheldon Keefe’s possession-first vision. Absolutely, that’s a result of hopping the boards with two all-star playmakers. But it’s also a product of Hyman’s desire to throw more tools in his box.

There’s a reason Hyman is the one winger neither Mike Babcock nor Keefe has knocked out of the Leafs’ top six for a noticeable stretch.

“Something that’s important is, you got to keep who you are. So I try to continue to be hard on the forecheck, in front of the net, and do all those little things,” Hyman says. “But then you want to expand your game. So now when we have the puck in the O-zone, I’m looking to make a play and create space for myself.

“I’m much more patient and much more confident with the puck now than I was two years ago.”

Hyman’s work is paying off in banged-in rebounds, pretty assists and flying tips.

The results might be surprising to some. Not to Keefe.

“I’ve come to expect just top-notch work ethic and competitiveness, and he’s really worked at his skill-set and confidence with the puck,” Keefe says.

“He’s a dominant player for us in all facets.”

2. Patrick Kane sounded something less than enthused upon learning of the NHL’s plan to introduce an “international flavour” to the 2021 All-Star Game in Sunrise.

“I don’t think anything really means as much as the Olympics, to be honest with you,” said Kane.

As the most established American player and a loyal superstar who throws himself into these weekends and has yet to beg out — 2020 marked his ninth, more than any other player in attendance — Kane’s voice carries weight.

It was interesting to hear Kane take Gary Bettman’s usual pooh-poohing of 2022 Winter Games participation — it’s “extraordinarily disruptive to the season,” the commissioner reiterated — with a grain of salt.

“Sometimes they portray that view on the Olympics, and then there’s always some room to try and figure it out. So, we’ll see what happens here,” Kane said. “Obviously it’s becoming pretty close to that date where you probably need to decide if we’re going or not.”

Kane was part of the American squad that grabbed the world’s attention in Sochi 2014 with that epic T.J. Oshie–led shootout versus Russia. He considered USA Hockey missing its chance to go for gold in China with elite talent like Jack Eichel and Matthews.

“I think we could put a pretty good American team together,” Kane said. “It’d be fun to play with some of those guys, especially after getting to know some of them the past couple years.”

3. ICYMI, the Professional Hockey Writers Association released its list of Midseason Awards winners late last week.

While the Midseason Awards come and go with little fanfare, zero actual hardware and no gala (low carbon footprint!), they do give fans an indication of where the writers might be leaning.

Unlike our final NHL Awards ballots, our individual choices are not revealed, but in the interest of disclosure and discourse, you can find mine below, with a brief comment.

Hart Trophy: Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Eichel
Feels like an abnormal number of Hart-calibre campaigns being waged by players on non-playoff teams: Eichel, Kane, Roman Josi and Artemi Panarin. Does Leon Draisaitl harm McDavid’s chances? Could Brad Marchand cut into the David Pastrnak vote?

Norris Trophy: John Carlson, Roman Josi, Dougie Hamilton
Hamilton’s injury and Josi’s belonging to a non-playoff team will hurt their chances and help Alex Pietrangelo and Victor Hedman’s shot of being finalists.

Calder Trophy: Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, Ilya Samsonov
Makar and Hughes are an easy one-two. I’d put Chicago’s Dominik Kubalik over Victor Olofsson based on goals, but the voters overlooked Samsonov’s incredible performance between the pipes (15 wins, .927 save percentage).

Lady Byng Trophy: Nathan MacKinnon, Mitchell Marner, Cale Makar
MacKinnon has 72 points and just four minor penalties.

Selke Trophy: Brad Marchand, Bryan Rust, Mark Stone
Centres almost always win this trophy, so I tried to acknowledge three wonderful two-way performances by wingers. We’re not talking enough about Rust’s work.

Vezina Trophy: Connor Hellebuyck, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tristan Jarry
The writers don’t actually vote on this at year’s end, but Vasilevskiy appears to be clawing at Hellebuyck’s lead and could well repeat.

Jack Adams Award: Mike Sullivan, Craig Berube, John Tortorella
Pals Sullivan and Tortorella have persevered with injury- and free-agency-ravaged rosters, while Berube holds the antidote to the Stanley Cup hangover.

GM of the Year Award: Jim Rutherford, Jim Nill, Brad Treliving
Did Rutherford both acquire and cut ties with Phil Kessel at the perfect time?

Rod Langway Award: John Carlson, Ryan Graves, Jaccob Slavin
Carlson’s video-game numbers obscure his own-zone excellence. Graves quietly leads the NHL with a plus-34 plus/minus and doesn’t get a stitch of power-play time.

Comeback Player of the Year Award: William Nylander, Shea Weber, Jake Allen
Nylander has already more than tripled his total goal output from 2018-19. Weber returned to Norris-conversation form. And because you’re so focused on Bieber vs. Binnington, you didn’t notice that Allen flipped from a career-worst save percentage to a career best (.926).

4. I appreciated Marner’s honest response when I asked him how the intensity of an all-star game 3-on-3 shift compares to that of one in a regular-season 3-on-3 overtime.

“Not even close,” Marner replied. “It’s one of those things that you don’t really know how hard to go in these games, but it was fun.”

Even the carrot of a $1 million prize and the removal of the physical element of 5-on-5 play can’t get millionaires to go full out in a contact exhibition.

“It’s a balancing act,” Chris Kreider says. “Guys don’t want to go too hard, but guys definitely want to win.”

As is the case with the Pro Bowl, I don’t see a way to force intensity. Maybe the money should automatically be donated to participants’ charities of choice, then.

And because the Skills Competition has so severely supplanted the actual game as the weekend’s centrepiece, maybe they swap nights, and Skills gets the Saturday prime-time platform.

5. As the jubilant Pacific Division celebrated its 3-on-3 All-Star Game victory, Tomas Hertl — a strong candidate for happiest all-star — declared he was throwing some of his prize money on the board for San Jose to win its first game back.

Indeed, Hertl scored and was serenaded by his brand-new personal goal song, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. The Sharks doubled the Ducks 4-2 Monday, but Hertl’s season ended when he tore his ACL and MCL:

A couple of days prior to the injury, Hertl gave an impassioned speech about the sad state of the Sharks and his desire to get things back on the rails.

“I know I’m one of the most important players on the team, and that’s kind of why this year pissed me off. Because me or all team is not like last year. I think everybody can do better,” Hertl said.

“In the next 30 games, I will be better. I will be one of the leaders who is holding the team. Doesn’t matter, offensively, defensively, I know I can do it.”

Hertl said “everybody started cheating” for offence and called for improved teamwork throughout. He took Peter DeBoer’s firing as a warning.

“He gave me the biggest opportunity in my life. I’m really grateful,” Hertl went on. “It was tough when we found out he’s not our coach, because coach is like family.

“We know what is next. It’s going to be us as players.”

6. A popular Calder pick heading into the season, as most No. 1–overall draftees are, Jack Hughes sits outside the top 10 in rookie goals and rookie points, behind four defencemen and a guy (Ilya Mikheyev) who’s been sidelined for more than a month.

MacKinnon is one of the few people in the world who can relate with what Hughes is going through. Although MacKinnon exploded at 18, with a 63-point freshman campaign, 2013’s first-overall pick wouldn’t even sniff that level of production for his next three seasons.

Now, he’s indisputably one of sport’s superstars.

MacKinnon trained with the Hughes brothers under Andy O’Brien over the summer in Halifax. He is a little surprised Jack only has six goals and 17 points but knows the teenager’s explosion is only a matter of time.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s tough. I had some tough years my first couple years too. Jack’s very young. He’ll grow and become stronger,” MacKinnon says. “He’s too good not to break out.”

Hughes, naturally, is taking his underwhelming stat line personally.

“I do. That’s obviously my game, right? I’m supposed to get points. I think with where my game’s at, the points haven’t translated. I’m creating a lot, playing really well, so obviously I’d like more points, but there’s a lot of season left,” Hughes says.

“I realize I’m going to have a really long career in this league, and I’m going to be a great player. I’m happy being in the NHL right now. I mean, I’m living out my dream.”

P.K. Subban says, as tumultuous as the winter has been in New Jersey, Hughes has handled it well and done everything asked of him.

“When you’re an elite player, all you focus on is being an elite player,” Subban says. “You have a player like that’s going to develop into a superstar. I mean, there’s no question about that.

“The people that know hockey know.”

Hughes is a minus-13. The only rookie with a worse digit in that category? No. 2 overall, Kaapo Kakko, at minus-17.

“Especially in today’s NHL, to get points, you have to be on good teams and playing with good players,” Subban defends.

“There’s a lot of great players on this team, but they’re young and still developing. For Jack, I don’t think he needs to worry about his numbers. His numbers will come.”

7. Kakko flew back to Finland during the Rangers’ bye week, a healthy break for another rookie with grand expectations and low totals (7-9-16).

Recently, David Quinn tried the kid up on the top line to give him a jolt, and the coach is tempering expectations but reminding us that he’s a teenager who’s never played a season this long on a rink this small.

“He’s had a good year. He’s had some ups and downs just like most 18-year-olds do. The challenges of playing the National Hockey League in your first year, regardless of how talented you are, there’s a learning curve for all 18-year-olds, and he’s certainly going through that,” Quinn explained.

“He wants to be great. He’s very hard on himself. I think that’s part of the issue. When he struggles, his expectations are really high, and he’s hard on himself. But he’s a talented player… and he’s handled pressure very well.”

8. Say whatever you want about Trevor Linden’s presidency and the delayed rebuild in Vancouver, but the Canucks handled the final days of the Sedins with the utmost class.

They treated their legends right.

Let’s hope we can say the same thing about the New York Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, one of the greatest goaltenders of our time.

A healthy King was reduced to a measly two starts in January (both losses) as the rebuilding club tries to figure out (showcase?) exactly what it has in Igor Sheshterkin and Alexandar Georgiev.

Lundqvist hasn’t suffered the indignity of the healthy scratch, but a fierce competitor like him can’t appreciate wearing the ballcap every game night.

If GM Jeff Gorton ends up setting Georgiev’s trade price too high and tries to juggle all three netminders through 2020-21, he risks a less-than-distinguished exit for Lundqvist.

“Hank is a future Hall of Fame goaltender, so it’s a different situation,” says Kreider, a career-long Blueshirt. “But, I mean, we’ve got three incredibly capable goalies.

“Since I’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve [carried three goalies], but in my experience, competition isn’t the worst thing.”

Lundqvist may no longer deserve to the club’s No. 1 starter, but his save rate (.907) is respectable, his body is ready, and his hunger is in tact.

He deserves better than this.

9. Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton oversaw Leafs rookie Pierre Engvall for two seasons (2015-17) with Sweden’s Mora IK before the big forward made the jump to North America.

“You could see the raw talent he had: tremendous skater, the size, the skill. He was still used to being able to skate the puck the length of the ice whenever he wanted to. He just was that good as far as his physical attributes,” Colliton remembers of the year Engvall scored 21 goals in 50 games.

“He’d just wait for shift, rest until he got the puck, then go all the way down the ice and try to score. You could see the talent. I really enjoyed working with him because he was very coachable, wanted to be better, took the feedback.

“He had a fire when you gave him the feedback too, which is nice. And he made big improvements over the two years. It was fun to work with him.”

10. NFLer-turned-actor Terry Crews gave a great interview to Marc Maron this week.

In speaking about injury recovery, Crews said although the temptation is to stop exercising once you’re hurt, don’t. Just work on another part of your body that doesn’t hurt.

“Don’t do that, but do something else,” Crews advised. “It’s a trick.”

My mind flipped to Mikheyev, with whom I recently had a chat. His wrist is still fully guarded post-surgery, but in his best English he explained all the other work he’s doing to keep the rest of his body in tip-top shape with the hopes of returning for playoffs.

The poor guy’s parents flew to Toronto from Russia to see him play. Instead, they’ve had to settle for watching him return from workouts and treatments. Yet the rookie’s spirits are remarkably high.

“I don’t think you’re gonna find a guy in here that can say enough good things about him. He’s been unbelievable for us this year, this whole transition coming from Russia, not speaking great English. I mean, he’s blended in so well with us,” Matthews said. “So you really get sad to see that happen to such a really good kid.

“We’re all obviously thinking about him, and we hope for a very speedy recovery.”

11. It feels like once you’re a Blue, you’re always a Blue.

Wayne Gretzky played just 18 games in St. Louis, yet he came back to participate in the Winter Classic and All-Star Weekend. Chris Pronger works for the Panthers but was happily wearing his former Blue hat at Enterprise Center.

Oshie was welcomed back with raucous applause.

And Patrick Maroon, now a Lightning forward (and not an all-star), could be seen helping his son, Anthony, gather autographs and meet some of the stars last weekend.

Then there’s this: Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who once traded Ben Bishop out of town, made a pitch to the league to invite the Stars goaltender to the All-Star Game. A young Bishop honed his skills with the St. Louis Junior Blues and likely would’ve jumped at the chance.

How a club treats its alumni says much about its culture.

12. 24.

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