They say home is where the heart is, and Zach Hyman wears his heart all over his blue-and-white sleeves.
So, it came as little surprise Thursday to hear “the best forechecker in hockey” (as Mike Babcock memorably crowned him) lay his intentions plain on the table when it comes to his looming contract year and first peek at unrestricted free agency.
Hyman, after all, operates in straight, direct lines and hits his targets with the accuracy of a Fortnite bolt-action sniper rifle.
“I would love to stay in Toronto. It’s where I grew up. I want to be a Leaf for a long time. That’s first and foremost,” Hyman said on a conference call. “I would love to be a long-term Leaf and would love to re-sign here and would love to be here and ultimately win a Stanley Cup here.”
Since he was swiped from Florida in one of the greatest Maple Leafs trades of the cap era, Hyman has emerged as the organization’s worker bee for the superstars, the go-to left-hand man for Toronto’s elite centremen raking paycheques four or five times the size of his.
Hyman takes the hit, gets the puck, creates the screen, kills the penalty, and deposits the empty-net insurance. But, increasingly and despite the tough defensive assignments, Hyman has been developing his offensive flair.
He scored 21 goals in 2018-29, and has another 21 in 2019-20, despite being limited to 51 games played. League-wide, he ranks among the top 60 in goals created per game (minimum 11 games) and has accomplished that feat with minimal power-play usage.
Prior to the pause, Hyman was playing the best hockey of his life. On a team mired by inconsistency, he’s been the metronome. More impressive is that Hyman had been delivering these numbers, this effort fresh off knee surgery, after playing half of 2019’s seven-game series against Boston on a torn ACL.
“I’m still managing it. You’re always kind of aware of it,” Hyman said from quarantine.
“I wore a knee brace for the whole year, so I was pretty cognizant of the fact I was still rehabbing it. I came back pretty early. 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.”
Hyman, 27, is hesitant to reflect on his excellent campaign, holding hope (like the rest of us) that the playoffs can be played and our globe can slide back on its access.
He hasn’t picked up any new hobbies, just poured himself into his old ones. So when Hyman’s not walking the dog in Toronto parks or spending precious time with his new bride, Alannah, the moonlighting author has kept busy penning his fourth children’s book, reading nonfiction, and battling Mitch Marner and Frederik Gauthier on Fortnite.
“I actually read [Benjamin Graham’s] The Intelligent Investor. I don’t really play the stock market at all, but with everything happening around the stock market and that crashing, I figured it would be a good time to start reading about that stuff and start learning about that stuff. I actually did a little bit of learning reading to try to stay sharp,” Hyman explained. “I also have a book by Warren Buffett that I’ll probably read next.”
In the NHL financial landscape, Hyman is earning more like buffet money than Buffett money.
Excluding young stars stuck on entry-level contracts, Hyman is one of the best bargains in the sport, at a $2.5-million cap hit.
When Hyman turned restricted free agent in the summer of 2017, he didn’t drag out negotiations. Pen was put to paper on July 5. Instead, he reminded that, yes, there is such a thing as a hometown discount in Toronto.
Although Hyman is eligible to ink an extension with the Leafs as soon as this off-season begins, his overdue raise won’t come until July 1, 2021.
Hyman wants to stay put, and he’s smart enough to realize that it’s for the best that he won’t be among the 2020 UFA class — a tough-luck group that has earned the right to seek pay raises in a world that may be ill-equipped to offer them.
“I guess, in a way, with everything that has happened now, I’m lucky that I have another year on my contract,” Hyman said. “Because everything will probably be sorted out by then, with regards to the cap and all those questions that nobody has answers for right now.”