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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: Zach Hyman breaks through at No. 15

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I promise, that'll be the only immature joke. Probably.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I don't think there's a player who has had a more unexpected performance this past season than Zach Hyman.  If you look back at the trade thread when the Leafs acquired him in exchange for Greg McKegg, you can see all sorts of differing perspectives as the community tried to puzzle out what was the thinking behind the deal. It seemed Kyle Dubas' familiarity with Hyman from his college days might have played a part. Regardless, everyone thought the deal was a couple of probably-nots trading hands.

Instead Zach Hyman surprised everyone with his audition, and looked very much like a guy ready to scrap for an NHL job.

Zach Hyman is our No. 15.

The Results

Hyman made everyone's list this year, from a low of 20 (High Inquisitor and Defender of the Faith Scott Wheeler) to a high of 11 (Katya, Chris and myself.)

Katya:

I thought Hyman looked like he was a full-time capable NHL player last year in his trial run.  He was an effective forechecker and support player and I assume he's going to get a lineup spot out of camp unless something weird happens. [He doesn't have] AHL production that is overwhelmingly good, but Hyman seems to have a game that Babcock wants to use as a complementary top liner.

Species:

I saw a lot of JvR's game in Hyman's play with the Marlies. He would park himself at the front of the net and was able to bully any defender out of his way. Unfortunately, Hyman's linemates rarely connected a shot for him to knock in.

(That comparison is the highest compliment Species gives, just so you know.)

Scott is skeptical, however.

I had Hyman ranked so low first and foremost because I valued upside, youth, and offensive ability as my predominant factors when evaluating the forwards. I think a few misconceptions have worked their way into his narrative. The first, is that he’s young. He isn’t. He’s 24 years old and the player he is now is roughly the player he always will be. The second, is that because he stuck in the NHL that he’s a more legitimate option moving forward than some of the other talent. There, I would disagree.

I think he stuck because Babcock fell in love with him but I don’t think that makes him immune to the fact that he’s got a limited range in a pool of prospects with serious upside. All of the players I had ahead of him (Leivo, Grundstrom, Leipsic, Bracco, etc.) all have more ability to step into the NHL and be more than a marginal fourth line player who is responsible in his own zone. And they all, except maybe Leivo, still have considerable room to grow. That matters.

Despite his status as a point of controversy, there wasn't too much variation in Hyman's ranking, with no one going more than five spots away from where he wound up.  If nothing else, we all agree we won the Greg McKegg trade.

Voter Scott Wheeler 67 Sound Birky Arvind Elseldo Emily Achariya JP Nikota Species Burtch Katya Fulemin Mike B Chris H
Rank 20 16 14 16 14 18 18 16 12 16 11 11 14 11

The Player

Zach Hyman, now 24, is 6'1", 205 lbs., and can play centre or wing.  After three low-scoring years in the NCAA, he spiked in point production as a Michigan senior alongside Red Wings property Dylan Larkin.   His NHL rights were then traded for McKegg's as described above, and Hyman joined the Leafs' organization in the summer following graduation.

Hyman's nice but not dazzling point totals with the Marlies--15G-22A-37P in 59 GP--merit a deeper look.  While you can't magic him into a star scorer with cherry-picking, you can note a lot of his points were primary ones (32 out of 37) and that he was in the top six everyday Marlies' players in even-strength primary points per game.  No one's going to mistake him for Nylander (or Mark Arcobello), but he can contribute in a useful way, particularly as a crease-and-corners guy.  Some guys score their goals as snipers; think of Hyman as more of a sawn-off shotgun.

In terms of general play, Zach's Marlies teams did very well with him on the ice.  In even strength goals-for % (take it for what it's worth), he was third behind only Nikita Soshnikov and Brett Findlay.  The stats bear out the eye test, which suggests Hyman is a dogged, persistent presence on the ice who plays determined defence.  He's impressed his coaches with this attribute, as we'll see below.

Let's look at that Maple Leafs run Hyman had this year, because although it was a 16-game sample on a cobbled-together team, it played a big part in putting him on the map.  Hyman showed remarkable chemistry with Nylander and Parenteau, producing a very capable 5v5 possession line, although Parenteau seems to have been driving things more than the rookies.  Still, this leads to the fascinating result that aside from the departed Mark Arcobello, Hyman was the best Leafs player in raw EV possession last season with at least ten GP.  Hyman therefore has a totally-not-predictive  HERO chart that I'm going to post anyway because it's fun to look at:

#HymanForSelke

Hyman also chipped in a few goals, generally from about five feet in front of the net, and produced a bunch of shots (2.31 per game.)  If you'd like to see him show the kind of net front presence Species was talking about, here's a goal, and here's another. All in all, his bizarrely low assist total aside, Hyman spent 16 games sure looking like the kind of two-way utility forward a team would be happy to have.

That's enough stats, though, because a big part of the reason for liking Hyman isn't his numbers, fun though they are.  It's Mike Babcock.

The biggest signal is how Mike Babcock has used Zach Hyman.  Putting him on a line with Nylander and Parenteau is a huge show of support even on the skeleton-crew team the Leafs had towards the end of last year.  And it's consistent with how Mike Babcock likes to use players.  He famously believed in role diversity in Detroit--think Abdelkader with Zetterberg--and he loved (as most coaches do) his energetic depth players.  Hyman, if he can continue to deliver, is the kind of player Mike Babcock wants to put around his skilled core.

The coach's words have backed this up.  Babs, on Hyman and Nikita Soshnikov last March: "They're real players.  They're going to play.  They're just too good, too hard, and too fast with too much work ethic so those guys will play."   While the quote referred to the team at the time, and not necessarily the 2016-17 edition, it's pretty heady praise.

This doesn't mean Hyman is guaranteed any kind of job on the Leafs' crowded depth chart, and I wouldn't be totally shocked if he started the season with the Marlies.  (Hyman is currently waiver-exempt, facilitating movement from the ACC to Ricoh.) And if Hyman can't keep up his performance, he could quickly be surpassed: no one's mistaking him for a superstar.  But right now, he looks like a useful player with his coach's eye on him.  That's a pretty good place to be.