Why Zach Hyman is the Maple Leafs’ easy Masterton pick

Zach Hyman joins Hockey Central and talks about what he has been doing during the paused NHL season and what it is like playing with Auston Matthews.

TORONTO – There was a time, long before his consecutive 21-goal NHL seasons, when Zach Hyman could not score.

But the winger’s college coach at the University of Michigan, Hall of Fame legend Red Berenson, noticed the work ethic, the drive, and the love.

So, he pulled a young Hyman aside and delivered an uncomfortable lesson.

“You know, the way you’re gonna make it to the next level is, you gotta be an elite penalty killer, and you gotta be an elite two-way player,” Berenson advised. “The NHL is turning into grinders who can score.”

Around that time, Hymn acknowledged that while he’d never be the guy who screeched away in the scoring race, there were three things he could control: how hard he worked, his manner at the rink, and being present in the moment.

“I worked my bag off, I had a positive attitude, and I kept getting better,” Hyman told Connor Carrick recently, during an extended interview for his ex-teammate’s podcast.

“I’m gonna work harder than anybody in the gym to be one of the most fit players. And I’m going to do all the things some guys don’t want to do. I’m gonna go into the corners and get the puck back. And then, maybe, I’ll be able to score later on.

“I kept getting stronger, getting faster, and I figured out how I’m going to be an effective player in the NHL.”

On Tuesday, Hyman awoke on his 28th birthday to the news he is Toronto’s selection for the 2019-20 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, as the local chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association has honoured the winger’s perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.

“It’s a nice birthday gift,” Hyman said Tuesday morning. “To be able to come back from an injury and to be recognized for that is really special.”

Since he broke through with the Maple Leafs in 2016-17, under the shadow of a couple of rookie forwards named Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, Hyman has affirmed his reputation as one of the sport’s premier grinders.

Former coach Mike Babcock would proudly laud the winger as “the best forechecker in hockey.” And Hyman’s resilience — know anyone else who can play half a playoff series on a torn ACL? — stands out even in a sport cluttered with tough guys.

But, increasingly, “the Sidney Crosby of 6-on-5” (a crown Matthews bestowed on his teammate in jest) can score — and not just into empty cages. Entrusted to protect late-game leads, Hyman has now tied Dave Keon’s franchise record of 12 career empty-net goals, despite playing 302 NHL games to Keon’s 1,062.

But Hyman’s hands are catching up with his legs.

Smart passes, deft tips, and sure-thing rebounds now complement shoulders in corners, sticks in lanes and stubborn screens outside the blue.

Among all NHLers who dressed for a minimum 10 games in 2019-20, Hyman rates among the top 60 in goals created per game (0.31). He tied a career-high in goals (21) despite playing just 51 games and not getting out of the blocks until mid-November as he diligently rehabbed his right knee, the most serious injury of his career. And he established himself as the most effective left winger to complement top centres Matthews and John Tavares.

Chances are, whoever’s line Hyman was on had the better night.

We distinctly remember Babcock’s reaction when Hyman finally took to the ice after seven months of treatment and muscle-rebuilding, of icing and stretching and fighting discouragement. Did Hyman look as good as the coach expected?

“Better,” Babcock replied post-game, not missing a beat. “You’ve seen our other guys come back — it’s a struggle. He’s just that kind of guy. He’s just working, working, working.”

Sounds like a Masterton candidate to us.

And that’s before you toss in Hyman’s officially being named to the Leafs’ leadership group, a signature golf tournament that has raised $100,000 for the Hospital For Sick Children, and his role as team spokesman for the You Can Play initiative.

Keeping busy with his esports business, Eleven Gaming, and his moonlighting gig as a children’s author, Hyman admits his knee was something less than 100 per cent this season as he enters Phase 2 of a return to play. All those goals? They were scored with a brace.

“I came back pretty early,” Hyman explained. “This off time is actually beneficial for my overall body just to heal up and try to get the knee feeling back to normal. When I was in the season, I called it the ‘new normal,’ just trying to manage the day to day soreness. It got better as the season went on, but definitely I have work to do with it.”

Ultimately, Hyman may not win the Masterton — our toonie is on Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, whose unique summer rehab and 97-point season was the stuff documentaries are made of — but as the Leafs’ most deserving candidate, he has certainly worked hard for the honour.

He’s not the type you rule out.

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