What’s been rumoured for days is now official. Zach Hyman has signed a long-term contract with the Edmonton Oilers who add a much-needed top-six forward to their line-up. Hyman and the Oilers have agreed to a seven-year contract with a $5.5 million AAV.
While some Oilers fans won’t be thrilled with their team giving that much term to a 29-year old forward who plays a physical brand of hockey, Edmonton is unquestionably better today than it was yesterday. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are in the prime of their careers and goalie Mike Smith is in the twilight of his. The Oilers want to win now and the addition of Hyman brings them closer to achieving that goal.
Regardless of where Hyman plays in the Oilers’ top-six, he will fit like a glove and make his linemates better — just like he did alongside Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews the past two years in Toronto. If you’re an Oilers fan you’ve probably heard plenty about Hyman and the kind of player he is. A tenacious forechecker who hunts down pucks and does the dirty work for his all-star linemates. The straw that stirs the drink on a top scoring line. Well, some of that is true but it’s far from the whole story.
Here’s what Oilers fans need to know about Zach Hyman — his under-appreciated offensive game, questions about his defensive game, and why simply being in the fight makes him such an effective forechecker.
Hyman is more skilled than he gets credit for and last season he displayed a level of confidence with the puck not seen before in his NHL career. Hyman averaged a career-best 0.76 points per game and 0.77 goals per game. If you think he was simply benefitting from the playmaking of Marner and Matthews, think again. Hyman created plenty of offence on his own.
Unlike seasons past, Hyman showed a willingness and ability to hang on to the puck and beat defenders with his speed and puck protection skills. At a per 60-minute rate, Hyman averaged 2: 05 of offensive zone puck possession time at even-strength. That’s time spent with the puck on his stick in the attacking end. Hyman ranked 19th among 396 qualified forwards in this stat and his comparables were Brad Marchand and Mark Scheifele. In the two years prior, Hyman ranked 229th and 251st, respectively. So, ya, Hyman dialled it up a notch.
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke about this evolution in Hyman’s game last season.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Keefe said. “We’re encouraging him to hang on to the puck a little more, encouraging him to look for linemates and make plays when they are there, encouraging him to challenge defencemen with his speed and the way he protects the puck.
“We know he’s great at retrieving the puck and those types of things and we still obviously need that from him, but I love the way he challenges the defencemen. He doesn’t let them off the hook.”
No, he does not. Want proof?
One of the metrics Sportlogiq measures is open-ice dekes, plays in which a puck carrier is able to beat a defender in open ice. Year after year, the players who show best in this statistic are among the most skilled forwards in the NHL. Hyman had never ranked in the top-100 among forwards before last season where he ranked 4th at a per 60-minute rate.
More of an eye test person?
Hyman is more than a ‘grinder’ whose purpose on a scoring line is to do grunt work for more talented players. He’s a bonafide top-six forward capable of pulling his weight offensively. Hyman is also an effective puck mover, ranking top-50 among all forwards in controlled zone exits and entries at even-strength.
In addition to his new-found confidence with the puck, Hyman is still one of the best in the league at generating shots from the most high-danger scoring area on the ice, the inner slot. Hyman ranked second league-wide to Auston Matthews last season, averaging four inner slot shots per 60 minutes at even strength. On the power play, Hyman ranked fifth among all forwards. Add it all up and Hyman finished third in shots from the inner slot, per 60 minutes. Expect Hyman to continue to do damage offensively from around the net, but know that he’s much more than a one-trick pony. He showed as much last season.
Defensively, Hyman doesn’t impact the game at a high rate at even strength. However, he has put up impressive ‘while-on-ice’ numbers in recent years. The Maple Leafs controlled a vast majority of the scoring chances while Hyman was on the ice, but it’s difficult to find evidence Hyman is driving the bus defensively in his even strength minutes.
Last season, the Maple Leafs had an expected goal rate of 62.9 per cent with Hyman on the ice. Only five forwards were better: Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Patrice Bergeron. Decent company to keep. In terms of straight defence, Hyman’s expected goals against per 60 minutes was 2.16, which ranked 88th among all forwards. As for Hyman’s impact, he ranked 220th in blocked shots, 303rd in stick checks (plays in which a player separates the puck from an opponent with his stick), 335th in loose puck recoveries, and 379th in blocked passes. This, out of 396 qualified forwards.
Hyman did not rank among the top-200 forwards in the league in any of those categories in 2019-20 either.
Quantifying an individual’s total defensive impact when he’s on the ice is far from an exact science, but the data available paints a pretty clear picture. When Hyman is on the ice, his team controls the play. They dominate offensively and are above average defensively. There just isn’t any available data to suggest Hyman is a driver of defensive success.
The Oilers were a below-average defensive team last season, while the Maple Leafs finished inside the top-10 in expected goals against. Hyman is by no means a poor defensive player, however, he did benefit from playing on a strong possession team with linemates who are better defensive players than they get credit for. He will not have that same luxury playing in Edmonton’s top-six next season.
Former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock once called Hyman “the best forechecker in hockey.” It took me a little while to figure out what he meant. Over the past few years, Hyman has not ranked anywhere close to the league leaders in the percentage of puck battles he wins in the offensive zone. More often than not, when Hyman engages in a puck battle he does not come out of it with the puck. However, he does engage in a ton of battles and there is inherent value in just being in the fight, something you never have to worry about with Hyman.
Last season, Hyman ranked seventh in puck battle wins in the offensive zone, while also losing the sixth-most. In all three zones, Hyman averaged 12.8 puck battle wins per 60 minutes, 51st among 396 qualified forwards. His win percentage among the top 51 forwards in the league ranked 46th.
While he may not come out of a battle with the puck as often as other forwards, being as involved as Hyman is in this area of the game provides several benefits to his team. It allows for teammates to engage in the battle and recover the puck. It disrupts breakouts and forces the opposition to spend more time and effort attempting to exit the defensive zone. It also forces opposing teams into mistakes.
Former linemate Auston Matthews is another player who engages in, and wins, a lot of puck battles. Matthews is an under-appreciated forechecker who uses his large frame to push opponents off the puck. Matthews and Mitch Marner also have great defensive sticks — both ranked top-25 in blocked passes in the offensive zone last season.
Hyman’s willingness to battle on the boards along with Matthews’ and Marner’s defensive instincts are what contributed to this line’s ability to extend plays in the offensive zone, generate a large volume of offence, and ultimately produce a stellar expected goals for percentage. It wasn’t quite as simple as ‘Hyman does the dirty work while Matthews and Marner wait around to score goals.’
McDavid and Draisaitl are not nearly as disruptive away from the puck as Matthews and Marner. Regardless of who Hyman plays with, he will be counted on even more than he was in Toronto to be a disruptive force in the offensive zone. This shouldn’t be a problem for Hyman, who, as I said, never shies away from a battle.
If you’re an Oilers fan you will love what Hyman brings to the table night in and night out. He has top-six skill and a grinder’s work ethic. Hyman’s current career-highs in goals and points sit at 21 and 41, respectively. Expect him to beat both of those totals next season.