Oilers’ Zach Hyman ‘should have been an All-Star’ this season. But he’s used to being overlooked

EDMONTON — As a teammate of Connor McDavid, Zach Hyman was never going to be named to the NHL All-Star Game as part of the initial picks when just one player was selected from each team.

He got lots of support in the subsequent fan vote but wasn’t one of the final eight skaters because those from bigger markets Toronto and Vancouver — and Leon Draisaitl — dominated the polling.

All that makes sense. Hyman still had an outside chance to go as the injury replacements started being announced, but he never got a call before the Oilers went on their bye week last Saturday despite having his best NHL season at age 31 with 30 goals — tied for sixth in the league.

He said wanted to take part in his first All-Star Game, which would have been fitting given that the event is in Toronto — his hometown and where he got his big-league start with the Maple Leafs.

“I would have gone for sure. It’s a huge honour,” Hyman said. “But it’s all good.”

If Hyman isn’t the game’s biggest snub, he’s not far down the list.

He’s the top goal-getter not at the game of any player who was willing and able to go. His on-ice value this season extends far beyond the traditional stats, too.

Hyman has been the second-best player in the Pacific Division behind McDavid, per The Athletic’s Net Rating. Only former teammate and ex-linemate Auston Matthews has created more scoring chances per game this season, according to Stathletes.

That checks out because Hockey Reference has Hyman second to McDavid in expected plus/minus, which considers shot location and uses leaguewide averages to determine the likelihood of that shot being a goal.

Basically, Hyman is getting to his office — the front and side of the net — and producing Grade A attempts masterfully. Of course, his shots have also gone over the goal line with great proficiency.

“Maybe I’ve been more consistent — or I’ve tried to be,” Hyman said. “I’m making the most of my chances, too.”

All that wasn’t enough to join the who’s who of the NHL’s elite, though.

“His game speaks for itself. He’s having an unbelievable year this year,” McDavid said. “He should have been an All-Star.”

For Hyman, it’s just another slight, the latest example of him being overlooked and undervalued. It’s something he’s gotten used to over the years, which has appeared to serve him well.

Hyman’s advancement as a player, specifically as an offensive force, has been remarkable since he signed as a free agent with the Oilers in July 2021.

He set a career high with 27 goals in his first season in Edmonton and then beat that mark a year ago by scoring 36 times. And even those totals look pedestrian by comparison to the 55-goal pace he’s on now.

Ask Hyman about his latest career-best campaign and his natural inclination is to deflect praise. He’ll mention how he’s fortunate to skate so frequently with high-calibre teammates like McDavid, Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and how he’s a mainstay on one of the top power plays the sport has ever seen.

“The more you play with those guys, the more you learn their tendencies,” Hyman said. “First year, you’re on a brand-new team, trying to learn your teammates and what they like to do. The second year, you have better feel. The third year, it’s automatic.”

“Guys get better when you’re playing with that type of player and you’re practising with Connor and Leon and Nuge day in and day out. Your puck touches go up,” said Oilers assistant coach Glen Gulutzan, who oversees the forwards, runs the power play and whose tenure with the team overlaps with Hyman’s.

“It’s been a progression of improvement but based upon how hard he works.”

It’s not like Hyman has been filling nets so often solely because he’s playing next to McDavid, though. This isn’t the same scenario as how a “fire hydrant could score 40 goals playing with Mario (Lemieux) or Wayne (Gretzky),” as Luc Robitaille once said.

Elite players like McDavid seldom have scrubs for linemates. The right temperament is required to excel next to him as well.

“Look how many guys tried to — not to put anybody down — but it’s not easy,” Hyman said. “If you can figure it out, it’s great. But there’s also a lot of pressure that comes along with it.

“If you play with those guys, there’s an expectation that your line is one of the best lines in hockey. Your line has to produce. It has to outscore the other team. If you don’t, you’re probably not going to be successful (as a team).”

As Hyman’s former University of Michigan coach Red Berenson said, two of his best attributes are that “he’s a smart kid and he listens.”

So, he’s taken McDavid’s advice and gotten to the backside of the net to act as a passing option or to deflect in shots — either skillfully or as a basketball backboard. He’s also veered away from the goaltender and provided moving screens rather than just taking up space in front.

He’s focused on becoming far more of an offensive threat.

“He’s continuing to evolve his game,” McDavid said. “When he first came into the league, he was viewed as a penalty killer and a third-line guy, checker, who works hard. Now he doesn’t kill penalties at all, and he stays out for two minutes on the power play.”

McDavid laughed before he continued.

“He’s changing his game a little bit. He’s working on his game,” he said. “You see him scoring goals that not a lot of guys can score.”

GettyImages 1320579485 scaled e1629671308158

Zach Hyman played for his hometown Maple Leafs from 2016 to 2021. (Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)

As McDavid suggests, Hyman wasn’t nearly this player in Toronto — especially when he broke in with the Leafs in 2016.

Then-coach Mike Babcock quickly put Hyman on the left wing next to emerging stars Matthews and William Nylander. Hyman heard the criticism from all corners.

Who is this grinder playing with Matthews and Nylander? He can’t score. He can’t stickhandle. He can work hard, but he can’t really do anything else. Why is he playing there?

“There’s only one puck, so you have to be able to play really well without the puck. The three most skilled guys on the team might not mesh the best together,” Hyman said. “You can do stuff away from the puck to help your linemates. Then each year, I’ve tried to build onto my game, build more elements to my game.”

Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly — a 2024 All-Star — witnessed Hyman being a helpful part of skill lines in Toronto for years.

“Those guys wanted to play with him. That speaks volumes,” Rielly said. “He was able to choose what he thought he needed to do in order to be successful. That’s what he did. He didn’t care what that was. He didn’t want attention. He didn’t want to be flashy.”

Not that any knocks against his play and talent bothered Hyman. He not only reached the best hockey league in the world but was establishing himself in it. He didn’t care what anyone else said — just like always.

“I already had this thick skin,” he said.

Hyman grew up in Forest Hill, an affluent neighbourhood north of Toronto’s downtown core. Hockey quickly became his first love and his dad, Stuart, found him anything piece of hockey memorabilia he could get his hands on.

Even though Zach grew up a Maple Leafs fan, an action shot of Wayne Gretzky from the Oilers days hung prominently in his bedroom.

Stuart also had a passion for hockey. He put his wealth as a successful real-estate developer to use to buy up roughly 90 minor hockey teams around the Toronto area.

Stuart said his objective was to keep teams operational and give those less fortunate the chance to keep playing. But being so involved caused issues for his five boys, starting with his oldest.

Though Hyman held his own on youth teams with future NHLers like Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Skinner, Devante Smith-Pelly, Tyler Seguin and Sam Carrick, there was a lot of grumbling at the rinks. Stuart also owned the Hamilton Red Wings, where Hyman played in Junior A.

“Any team I was on in minor hockey and junior hockey, I was only on because my dad owned the team; that was the comment,” Hyman said. “You start to build a thick skin. I can’t control what other people think. So, you just ignore it. You don’t worry about it. It helped me build a thick skin throughout everything.”

Those comments are partly what made Hyman want to push even harder.

Hyman was all-in on becoming a hockey player before he became a teenager. He was a provincial-level striker on the soccer pitch but gave that up to zero in on that first sporting love.

The first thing anyone mentions about Hyman is his work ethic. He refuses to skip a workout, his brother Spencer said, whether that’s on a family vacation or the morning after his bachelor party.

Hyman’s relentless nature, notably his dogged effort in the corners, made him a popular request as a linemate by the veteran players on the Hamilton Red Wings, even as an OJHL rookie.

“They identified his work ethic. They identified his willingness to go the areas that they weren’t at that time,” coach Mike Galati said, laughing.

Galati named Hyman captain for the following season, 2009-10, and the forward recorded 35 goals and 75 points in 49 games before being drafted in the fifth round by the Florida Panthers.

Hyman probably would have been selected higher had it not been for his skating, which Doug Antoine called “the weakest part of his game.”

“He was terrible,” the skating coach and owner of Antoine Efficiency Skating said. “He had hands to die for.”

Hyman had Antoine skate him several times a week that offseason through to the end of the summer.

Antoine wanted to revamp Hyman’s skating habits — removing the pounding of his skates and jumping from his stride and improving crossovers and laterals to make him a more efficient skater. They’d stop drills every few minutes at first.

“He had no problem getting criticized,” Antoine said. “He just wanted to get the movements right.”

“We put a lot of time in to fix my skating,” Hyman said. “I would say I’m a very unique skater. I can get up and down the ice pretty well, but I’m not as pretty to watch as Connor.”

Hyman exploded the following season in Hamilton with 42 goals and 102 points in 43 games. He was named the Canadian Junior Hockey League player of the year.

He was riding high heading to the University of Michigan, where he was set to begin his freshman season after decommitting from Princeton following a coaching change there.

But Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers, who’d scouted Hyman in Hamilton, felt the then-centre was more of a checker. Berenson agreed with that assessment.

“That (a scorer) didn’t seem to be part of his momentum at that time,” Berenson said. “We didn’t know what we were getting. Zach ran into a bit of a wall when he got here.”

It wasn’t long before Hyman was playing wing on the fourth line with the Wolverines. He had nine points in each of his first two collegiate seasons.

“That was really tough. It was really hard,” Hyman said. “I went to college, and I thought I was going to be a point-a-game player.

“At that point, my odds of making it to the NHL were pretty slim. But, for me, it was, I have two more years. I have a lot of time left.”

GettyImages 460898066 scaled

Zach Hyman celebrates a goal while playing for the University of Michigan in 2014. (Dave Reginek / Getty Images)

Berenson, the Hockey Hall of Fame coach, kept assuring Hyman that his time would come if he kept improving on the little details of the game like blocking shots and defensive play.

It wasn’t until an injury to a teammate in his junior season that Hyman moved up the lineup, centring the third line. After doing well there, he moved up the top trio at right wing. A beautiful goal on a power move in Minnesota was the turning point.

Ahead of Hyman’s senior season, Berenson approached Stuart at a banquet to offer praise for his son. Most players in Hyman’s skates would have transferred, he said.

Hyman said he never considered that option. He believed his hard work would eventually pay off.

Berenson entrusted Hyman to guide hot-shot prospect Dylan Larkin in that final season. Hyman responded by leading the team with 22 goals and 54 points and earned the university’s male athlete of the year honours.

“It was a classic case of development,” Berenson said.

To improve in junior and college hockey is the norm. To experience quantum leaps in production isn’t nearly as common. To do that in the NHL and keep offensive totals heading north into a player’s 30s is another thing entirely, though.

Not even Galati or Berenson, two of Hyman’s hockey mentors, quite saw this coming.

“Not to this point,” Galati said.

“He was emerging as a player that was going to be a good player,” Berenson said, “but he looked like more of a grinder-type than an offensive force that he is now.”

With free agency looming in the summer of 2021, Hyman had clear instructions for his longtime agent, Todd Reynolds: “I don’t want to change (teams).”

Hyman was a Toronto boy who was having success with the team he grew up rooting for. His family was there. Same goes for his wife, Alannah Mozes.

But after negotiations between Reynolds and the Maple Leafs reached an impasse, Hyman asked Leafs management if they’d permit him to speak with other teams about a contract.

He said he immediately thought of the Oilers and hopped on a plane to visit the city and the arena.

The Oilers were filled with elite forwards, but Hyman began to realize there was still greater opportunity compared to Toronto, which had Matthews, Nylander, Mitch Marner and John Tavares up front.

“I was never going to get on the power play there. I was never going to excel,” Hyman said. “In coming here, I thought I could be part of a core group with unbelievably talented individuals, who want nothing more than to win a Stanley Cup. That was my goal.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

He’s in Year 3 of the seven-year, $5.5 million AAV deal he accepted from the Oilers, but Hyman and the team haven’t accomplished their ultimate goal yet. After a rocky start this season and a coaching change, they’re back to being serious contenders — and Hyman’s latest goal-scoring bump is a big reason why.

“I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s trending upward,” Rielly said. “When he left Toronto, I wanted him to stay because we were friends, and he was a great player. When he goes somewhere else, your instincts are to say, ‘I wonder how he’s going to fit in. I wonder how this is going to go.’

“He’s played extremely well. He’s taken the opportunity and absolutely run with it.”

Hyman has established himself as the best free-agent signing in franchise history and one of the top signings leaguewide in the salary-cap era.

“Zach has been above and beyond anyone’s expectations,” McDavid said.

There were those whispering in Hyman’s ear before he signed, asking him if he was sure Edmonton was the right place for him to go.

The Oilers had won just one postseason round since reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. The knock against the Alberta capital is it’s cold and dark and one of the league’s outposts.

Normally primarily concerned with the day’s work ahead of him, Hyman had to think about the long term.

He thought of the rink, one of the NHL’s nicest, completed in 2016. He envisioned how Edmonton was the perfect place for him and his wife to raise their son, Theo. (They now have two boys; Bennett was born in August 2022.) And he couldn’t help but think about getting to score goals off passes from McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins to help the Oilers win games.

“For me, it’s the perfect place to play,” Hyman said. “What more can you want?”

That feeling endures for Hyman, even if it means he’s still in the shadows of the superstars who are in his hometown this weekend for the All-Star Game.

(Photo: Paul Swanson / NHLI via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top