SAN JOSE, Calif. — Before he was dubbed the “Sidney Crosby of 6-on-5,” Zach Hyman was simply the guy who played with The Guys.
He’s basically earned a standing invite to skate alongside the Toronto Maple Leafs most-valuable, highest-skilled and best-paid players since arriving in the NHL. Hyman was the worker bee who rode shotgun with Auston Matthews for two seasons and the third member of the Mitch Marner/John Tavares show last year.
Now he’s playing with Matthews and Marner, and starting to garner some of his own recognition while posting career-best numbers.
That’s partly shooting-percentage driven in a season where Hyman’s already scored 21 times in 47 games, but a universal truth has emerged as he approaches the 300-career game milestone this week: He’s much more than a determined skater who has been fortunate to play with elite linemates.
Don’t believe me? Ask those elite linemates who they want to play with.
“He’s proven to be a valuable player with good players and now he’s gaining extra confidence with the puck, and making plays, and he’s in demand from our best guys in terms of wanting him with them,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said last week.
They’ve all come to understand that a lot of good things happen when Hyman is on the ice, even if he’s not a true equal in terms of his playmaking or shooting ability.
Plus the confidence Keefe spoke about can be seen in some recent plays where he flashed sneaky skill — such as his 20th goal of the season last Thursday in Florida, when Hyman went forehand-to-backhand while in tight to open up Sergei Bobrovsky.
However, there’s really nothing new about his positive impact on Toronto’s top-six. There’s a reason why he’s remained there through a coaching change and the emergence of other young players behind him.
Going back to the start of the 2016-17 season, each of the Leafs’ top skaters has posted stronger results while playing with Hyman than they did in the minutes without him.
|TOI at 5-on-5 with
Those numbers are pretty staggering.
They speak to the value of having complementary skillsets on the ice at any given time. Hyman disrupts defenders and helps extend offensive zone shifts, which in turn gives Marner and Matthews more of an opportunity to work their magic.
He wouldn’t be as effective if he was keeping the puck alive on a fourth line, but they wouldn’t have as many openings to make plays if they didn’t have someone rolling up their sleeves like Hyman does.
“He’s so good at getting on other the teams’ defence and forechecking and getting pucks back and, I mean, he’s always around the net,” said Matthews. “That’s where you usually know he’s going to be and obviously he’s banging home rebounds. He’s just an easy guy to play with. You know he’s going to give it his all every night.
“I think it makes my job easier, Mitch’s job easier, because you know where and when he’s going to be doing certain things out there.”
He is also consistently counted on to help close out tight games, which produced a zinger from Matthews following the 4-2 victory over Vancouver on Saturday. Hyman picked up his fourth empty-netter of the season — and 12th of his career — that night.
“They call him the Sidney Crosby of 6-on-5,” said Matthews.
There’s a hidden compliment buried in that playful jab.
We’ve reached the point of the schedule where will is just as valuable as skill. And with games tightening and the playoff race kicking into high gear, Hyman has been a key figure during a push that’s seen the Leafs pick up wins in four of their last five.
Hyman missed 19 games to start this season after playing through a torn ACL at the end of last year’s first-round series with Boston, and needing to undergo surgery immediately afterwards.
Now he stands just one goal and five points shy of his most productive NHL season despite being sidelined for all of training camp and more than six weeks of action.
He’s also the guy Toronto’s stars want to play with, rather than the other way around.