Leafs' bid to re-sign Hyman will require creativity as major payday awaits

Kyle Dubas talked about the impact of Zach Hyman and Jason Spezza on the Maple Leafs, and the potential for their return to the team.

TORONTO -- For so long it was easy to look past Zach Hyman.

His first American Hockey League season was spent in the shadows of a shiny new Toronto Maple Leafs prospect named William Nylander. He rode shotgun with Auston Matthews throughout his first NHL campaign.

And while appreciation grew for the no-maintenance worker bee as the years went by, he was never the focal point in Toronto. You could almost miss him in plain sight. He simply provided a steady drum beat to help keep everyone else in tune.

What makes Hyman’s impending free agency so unique is that he will either be made a priority by the Leafs before July 28 or by someone else should he land on the open market.

A major payday awaits.

Hyman’s next contract will almost certainly be worth more than $5-million per season and come with term, which is why it’s possible the hometown kid has already played his final game for the Leafs. There certainly seemed to be a hint of resignation in his voice when he briefly touched on the subject in the aftermath of the team’s abrupt playoff elimination this week, saying: “I don’t know what the future holds.”

It was a far cry from the way Hyman spoke about his next contract in the early days of the pandemic.

“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,” he told reporters in April 2020. “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.”

While those sentiments haven’t changed, circumstances have. Another year has gone by with little or no progress on an extension in Toronto. And the damage inflicted to overall NHL business by the pandemic has locked the cap ceiling in at a flat $81.5 million.

With the Leafs seemingly unwilling to break up their Big Four -- Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas were unequivocal about their plans to keep all $40-million worth of Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Nylander moving forward -- they are challenged to have any other forwards inhabiting the middle class, let alone the upper-middle class where Hyman’s next deal is likely to fall.

Consider the players purged over the last three off-seasons alone: Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. The common denominator is what they were paid or about to be paid.

What sets Hyman apart from that group -- at least from everyone but Brown -- is that he’s grown up with this core. He’s played more than 61 per cent of his 5-on-5 minutes in the NHL with Matthews. He’s improved his points per game every season and helped set the standard for the group.

This decision is about the heart as well as the mind.

“There’s no bones about the fact that we would be very interested in having him back,” said Dubas. “I think it has to work out fair for both sides. Zach’s going to want to be treated fairly, we’re going to have to figure out something that works in the short and long term and that will be up to [Leafs assistant GM] Brandon Pridham and [agent] Todd Reynolds to sort that out.”

It’s not yet a fait accompli that Hyman will hit the open market.

There are ways for a creative front office to make this work.

Assuming the Big Four is kept intact, the Leafs could create the necessary cap space by trading Alex Kerfoot and his $3.5-million contract while replacing goalie Frederik Andersen at much less than the $5-million he’s been earning. But that wouldn’t leave much wiggle room for further improvements on the margins and it would subtract a top-nine forward from the current mix.

The sudden playoff exit to Montreal will require a full autopsy by Leafs management and Hyman understands that his situation is tied closely to other decisions facing the organization.

“I think that there are a lot of moving pieces with this,” he said.

It’s a big decision on both sides of the table.

Hyman is a sharp guy who runs an eSports gaming company and has served as a NHL Players’ Association rep. During the pandemic, his reading list included Benjamin Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor” and a book by Warren Buffet. He’s worked extremely hard to beat the odds and build this kind of hockey career, and understands he’ll likely never have an opportunity to sign a richer NHL contract.

In Hyman the Leafs have a reliable contributor and trusted teammate. The kind of guy who fits on any line and plays in every situation. But he’s also entering his age-29 season and battled some injuries in recent years.

“I don’t think I need to get into what Zach Hyman means to the club,” said Dubas. “He’s been an excellent player since he arrived here in 2015 and equally as impressive a person, if not more.

“He comes every day, puts it on the line for the team and we feel very fortunate to have him.”

Whether or not they can find a way to keep him remains to be seen.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.