It’s easy to appreciate what a player like Zach Hyman brings to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the team should consider altering his role during round one of the playoffs.
Whenever I find myself watching Auston Matthews, I’m constantly shocked at how much is put on his shoulders by the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ front office, coaching staff, and, most importantly, the fan base. As a 19-year-old, Matthews is tasked with not only being the face of a franchise, but also in driving the Leafs offensively as their first line centre, and taking on the oppositions’ best players.
When people were looking at Matthews’ seven-game point slump back in March, they were mainly focused on who his linemates were and other reasons as to why he was having trouble getting on the scoreboard.
Was it just the ebbs and flows of the season? Bad puck luck? Or does it have to do with who his left winger is?
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First, lets start out by saying Zach Hyman is a guy that every championship team needs to have on their roster. He leads by example with his extraordinary effort game after game, and his drive and heart are assets that aren’t possessed by many. He is a valuable third to fourth line player who is an exceptional penalty killer.
Yet despite all those attributes, I can’t help but think he is holding back Matthews offensively. Hyman is undoubtedly Mike Babcock’s favourite player on the team (if you haven’t noticed by now). I mean, just think about how incredibly lucky he is. Hyman’s a bottom-six winger who is playing close to 17 minutes a night with arguably one of the top-five centres in all of hockey.
Matthews, as a 19-year-old, has been playing at a high level to the point where he is being asked to carry a line offensively like how elite players such as Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov have been doing for their respective teams this season. In other words, playing with average players and essentially turning them into legitimate NHL players.
Matthews was fortunately paired up with William Nylander during the second half, but the idea of having a fourth line player with virtually no offensive skills on his line makes no sense. Hyman only has four even strength goals with Matthews in the past 50 games.
Many people might begin to ask, but why replace Hyman when their chemistry has been so good? Or, he goes into the dirty areas and gets Matthews the puck every night? I’ve watched these two play together the entire season and my major argument for making the switch is: where would Matthews production be if he didn’t have to carry a severely offensively limited player on his line?
As we know, Matthews finished the season tied for second in the NHL with 40 goals and added 29 assists for an impressive 69 point total. Well, on review of where Hyman’s points have come, only six have come at even strength this season and he has registered seven assists off genuine puck luck, where it either went off of his body or deflected to another player or he touched it and the other players did the skill work.
So, to put that in context, over an 82-game schedule playing with a rookie who has 40 goals and 29 assists, he has only been directly involved on 18 goals. That is borderline pathetic for a first line winger.
Now while that is a deceiving stat because of the secondary assist, which has benefited plenty of players, it makes me think whether a player like Josh Leivo or Kasperi Kapanen would really improve Matthews’ — and Nylander’s — offensive numbers that much and whether his role as a “mucker” is really as valuable as Babcock seems to think it is.
I am a big Hyman fan and think he is an important player for the Leafs moving forward in terms of being a penalty killer and a guy who can win a lot of battles for the puck. But is he so far superior in that regard that players such as Kapanen or Leivo would be completely out of place on Matthews wing, and that the lack of a “mucker” would be that much of a disservice to Matthews offense?
I don’t think so. I believe the added offensive talent of a skill player to Matthews’ wing would make him an even more dangerous scorer this season and moving forward.
With the playoffs here, I understand where a guy like Hyman can be valuable, but he’s better suited in a bottom-six role, not a featured role on the top line. Unfortunately, this likely won’t change until next season, but perhaps it’s something Babcock should consider mixing up in the postseason to help alleviate some of the pressure the Washington Capitals are bound to throw at Matthews and Nylander.