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Zach Hyman's offensive game reaching new heights with Oilers

·7 min read
Zach Hyman's game has flourished with the Oilers. (Getty)
Zach Hyman's game has flourished with the Oilers. (Getty)

Zach Hyman is the ultimate archetype of a fan-favourite hockey player.

It's easy to become enamoured with his game. What the Edmonton Oilers winger lacks in talent he more than makes up for in tenacity and a motor that never stops or even seemingly slows. That motor has helped Hyman build a very strong NHL career after being selected in the fifth round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Panthers.

Hyman didn’t sign with the Panthers and they ultimately traded his rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015 for Greg McKegg, a trade that understandably didn’t garner much attention at the time. Over parts of six seasons since getting his first look with the Leafs at the end of the 2015-16 season, Hyman made a name for himself and became a staple in a high-powered top six, playing 54 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Auston Matthews after his arrival in 2016 and 87 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with one of Matthews or John Tavares after the latter's arrival in 2018.

Now with the Oilers, the 29-year-old is showing even more progress.

Clearly, coaches and star players see Hyman as a perfect complementary player, and it’s easy to see why. Hyman thrives in the “dirty areas” that coaches are always talking about, notably on the forecheck and the net front.

(All dataviz courtesy Corey Sznajder and hockeyviz.com)

Hyman is the ultimate puckhound in the offensive zone, always keeping his feet moving and never giving up on a puck. This leads to a disproportionate amount of puck retrievals, allowing his team extra offensive-zone possessions, which is obviously optimal for your star players who are instantly dangerous with the puck on their sticks.

There are a lot of players who go to the net front and create chaos, but Hyman’s agility and motor separate him from that pack. The relentless winger will take that abuse while also jumping on loose pucks anywhere down low rather than planting his feet, becoming stagnant while the defenders collect the puck.

Needless to say, that same skillset also enables Hyman to create high-danger chances on his shots at a rate better than almost anybody in the league.

Since 2016, 430 players have played at least 3,000 minutes at 5-on-5, and Hyman ranks sixth among that group in individual expected shooting percentage. That means only five players have consistently taken their shots with a closer average shooting distance to the net than Hyman. One of those players is his new teammate, Connor McDavid. 

Hyman's career heat map is a very good illustration of his ability to create shots from right on top of the goaltender.

Ironically, a handful of games into his Oilers career, Hyman has most notably shown off this ability on the power play, where he’s scored three of his six goals after netting just six total on the PP in his five-plus campaigns with the Leafs — where he saw limited man-advantage opportunities.

It’s a safe bet that Hyman will score a lot of goals in the coming years from literally inside the crease like that, especially considering he’ll be playing big minutes with two of the best passers in the world in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

While those kinds of things will always be the bread and butter of Hyman’s offensive game, he’s added layers to his game seemingly every season since his arrival back in 2015. When he first showed up, it could get pretty frustrating to watch the feisty winger chop up the puck and seemingly fumble possessions over and over again while strapped to some of the most talented players in the league.

There was a time where Hyman's puck skills looked like that of your average beer leaguer, making his rise that much more impressive. Most notably over the last couple of seasons, Hyman has become a competent puck carrier in transition and has learned how to use his speed and strength to protect the puck while driving it himself. 

Early in his career, that was something that just wasn’t part of his game. Hyman would simply gain the redline and chip it in before flying in on the forecheck to try to get it back.

The chip and chase method is still definitely a big part of Hyman’s game, as it should be, since it plays to his strengths, but he’s become much more balanced in that aspect. This makes him an even better fit with star players, as opponents can’t just shadow them knowing Hyman can’t hurt you off the rush.

Now, if someone like McDavid is being smothered in the neutral zone, he can hand it off to Hyman and know it’s not an automatic dump in. Hyman could conceivably drive the net himself or drive the puck in deep and hand it back off in dangerous areas.

This 5-on-5 goal from earlier this season is a good example of some of that growth, as well as his much-improved shot.

If you were to go back in time a few years and show that clip to a Leaf fan, they would probably be so jarred by that rush and one-timer that they’d forget to ask how you figured out time travel. They’d probably also start sobbing at the knowledge that Hyman is now an Oiler.

Hyman obviously won’t continue to convert on over 40 percent of his shots as he has through five games with the Oilers, but it’s worth noting he’s scored on 15.6 percent of his shots since 2018 despite the aforementioned lack of power-play opportunity. Hyman has evolved from being one of the very worst finishers in the league to, at the very least, a passable one.

Hyman proj. WAR% vs. WAR%.
Hyman proj. WAR% vs. WAR%.

He’s obviously still no Steven Stamkos, but Hyman's improved scoring touch — combined with playing with a couple of the best playmakers in the world not only at 5-on-5, but also on the power play — is going to be interesting to keep track of. Good health provided, Hyman looks primed for his best scoring season to date.

When Hyman signed his seven-year, $38.5 million contract with Edmonton this offseason, there was no question that he would be a great fit in the immediate future. Hyman absolutely makes the Oilers a better team, as he would for any club which acquired him. The concern, and the reason the Leafs elected to let him walk, was the long-term implications of the deal.

Hyman relies on his speed and tenacity to make him effective and he’s had some serious injuries, including multiple knee ailments. The concern is that with Hyman’s style, injury history and being 29 years old at the time of the signing, the contract has a good chance of aging poorly. The Oilers decided they were willing to take the inherent risks involved with the big commitment to Hyman, even giving him a no-move clause in the first five years, with the last two years becoming a modified no-trade clause.

That bet may in fact turn sour over the years, but the early returns have been tremendous, and that will likely remain the case for at least a couple seasons.

Despite his age, Hyman still seems to only get better every season and continues to prove himself a major asset to his teams. It’s a near sure bet that you’ll be seeing increasing numbers of Hyman jerseys in Edmonton in the coming years. What’s not to love?

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