Since joining Oilers, Zach Hyman is filling a Ryan Smyth-shaped void

Zach Hyman discusses what he's learned about Connor McDavid's game from his time training with him this off-season, to playing with him so far this season, says he's got so much natural ability, but also pushes himself so hard every single day.

EDMONTON — Zach Hyman has five goals in five games for his new team in Edmonton. It’s the hockey team, by the way, despite the fact Hyman was recently described by head coach Dave Tippett as a guy who “scores a lot of goals from about the one-inch line.”

He has run the puck in over tackle with regularity in his short time with the Elks, er, Oilers in Edmonton. No different than he did in Toronto, where his old team is scuffling along this October. Mitch Marner (0), Auston Matthews getting (1), John Tavares (1) and William Nylander (2) have just three goals between them — two less than Hyman, if you’re keeping score at home.

In another tragic episode of Maple Leafs salary cap mismanagement, the player the Leafs could least afford to lose became a player who precisely fits the void that Oilers GM Ken Holland was trying to fill. Hyman’s goals will never be Plays of the Week material, though each one counts for just as much as a Connor McDavid end-to-end rush.

“His willingness to be at the net, in the goalie's eyes,” McDavid said. “Sometimes he even ends up in the net after he scores.”

Hyman signed a seven-year deal in Edmonton, meaning the author of three children’s book will be here for whatever McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Company pen for this franchise. For the grit, the sandpaper, the skill and the sheer likeability of Hyman as a person, the Oilers will shell out $5.5 million per season.

By comparison, Marner ($10.9 million), Matthews ($11.6 million), Tavares ($11 million) and Nylander (nearly $7 million) make a combined $40.5 million in Toronto.

Hyman was the working man’s Maple Leaf in an analytics-focused world where the word “grit” draws snickers and knowing smiles from those who do not respect what can not be quantified. GM Kyle Dubas paid all the skill guys, and when Hyman’s contract was up there was nothing left in the kitty for a heart-and-soul player whose work makes everyone around him better.

Out West, what we see in Hyman is the second coming of Ryan Smyth, a player who asked this scribe maybe 100 times (and we paraphrase), “Why wouldn’t I go to the net? That’s where the puck has to end up, isn’t it?”

Here’s what Hyman said on Monday:

“You get told early, if you want to score goals then go to the net. It’s the place to be,” said Hyman, his Oilers back at practice after a weekend in Vegas, a 5-0 start under their collective belt. “Early on my career, even before I got to the NHL, it was ‘Go to the net if you want to score goals.’ It’s the best way for me to score: banging in some rebounds. Sometimes it hits off of you, sometimes it goes off a skate. It doesn’t really matter.

“Especially later on in the year when things get tighter, you see those are the kinds of goals that are going to get scored.”

Like Toronto, the Oilers have lots of highlight reel scorers, No. 1 overalls and high draft picks who can dangle. That and four trips to the rink got the Oilers swept out of the playoffs last spring, when the power plays dwindled and open ice became even more scarce.

Holland and Tippett recognized what was required here, and went free agent shopping over the summer. Thus far, Hyman has checked all the boxes.

“He has a way of getting to the bottom of the pile, closest to the puck,” Tippett said. “The one he scored the other night it was a big pile up, but he seemed like he was in the right layer to move it ahead. He gets in there, he’s hard around that crease. He gets his nose over the puck, and he can usually advance it in the right direction.”

Can you microchip a player’s jersey and add up all the benefits of pucks battles won, net-front position gained, and hits taken to make plays? Can you quantify the flexibility Hyman has allowed Tippett, who thus far has played McDavid and Draisaitl on a line together at home, and on separate units on the road?

What about, as was Smyth’s talent, all those goals that go in because Hyman was screening and battling in front, even when he does not get a point? What heat map collects that data?

“That’s where he gets his goals,” McDavid said of his left winger at Monday’s practice, with the Philadelphia Flyer in Wednesday. “If he keep putting them in, we’ll keep putting (pucks) in there for him.”

What does it mean to add a Tomas Holmstrom-type scorer to a team that did not used to score many from the blue paint?

“We’re just covering more areas of the ice where we can score from,” McDavid said. “We’ve always had good net front guys, but he’s a bit of a different level.”

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