Hyman could have gone to a quiet market. Instead, he’s in Edmonton — and thriving
LOS ANGELES – We’re not sure whether Zach Hyman went from the frying pan into the fire or the other way around, but either way the heat surrounding him is intense.
A guy who spent six seasons under the broiler in Toronto, getting roasted for the Maple Leafs’ traditional first-round playoff exits, might want to go somewhere cooler and safer to play. Instead, the winger chose the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers, who won one playoff round the last six years with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? The Oilers, who followed their surprising run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final by missing the playoffs the next 10 seasons? Yes, those Oilers.
This is the team Hyman chose last summer as a free agent. And sure, he will get $38.5 million over seven years, but he will also get more grill marks should the Oilers disappoint again.
“There’s a tonne of parallels,” Hyman said Saturday of leaving Toronto for Edmonton. “First and foremost, we’re both in a Canadian market, two Canadian teams, and with the Stanley Cup not being in Canada for a long time, I think any Canadian team that makes playoffs has that extra pressure from the market. Just the situation of both teams having lost early on and having had some early mishaps. . . in the first round, I think the parallels are there for those. Two young teams, also young cores, elite superstar players, — Connor and Leon, Auston and Mitch (Matthews and Marner) — so, yeah, tonnes of parallels between the two. Just Eastern and Western.
“I love playing in this type of market. I love going to the rink, especially in the playoffs. If you were there in Edmonton in Games 1 and 2, you could feel something. The atmosphere was unbelievable. The fans are loud, probably the loudest in my career. I’ve never heard fans like that. You want to be in a place that cares and you want to be in a place where when you win, it matters, it means something. The lows may be lower and the highs may be higher, but as a player you want to be in a market that truly cares.”
In his sixth trip to the National Hockey League playoffs and first with the Oilers, Hyman scored twice in Friday’s 8-2 Game 3 embarrassment of the Los Angeles Kings, exceeding not only the single goal he scored in the Maple Leafs’ first-round collapse against the Montreal Canadiens last spring but setting a new career-high for playoff goals.
The 29-year-old hadn’t scored more than one in any of his five attempts with the Leafs in the Stanley Cup tournament, which is surprising because the ox-strong Hyman seems built for the playoffs. The 210-pound winger is all about winning puck battles and puck protection, controlling play along the boards and fighting traffic to get to the front of the net.
On his second goal Friday, he simply outmuscled former Oiler Andreas Athanasiou to win the puck, used his body position to skate away from the King and then deftly scored on a forehand that made it 4-0 and chased Jonathan Quick from the Los Angeles net at 7:42 of the second period.
“He is a puck protector, someone who gets people on his back and is able to grind teams down in the offensive zone just by keeping his feet moving, by his puck-protection skills,” Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft told reporters on Saturday at the Oilers’ hotel across from the arena here. “I think of his goal last night. . . it was a 50/50 puck battle and he was just, in my opinion, more determined to win that puck. He went through someone’s hands and then had the ability to finish it off.”
Hyman scored a career-high 27 goals for the Oilers this season, spending the first half of the year mostly when McDavid and then switching to Draisaitl’s line after Edmonton signed Evander Kane in January.
Hyman also controlled 52.6 per cent of shot attempts and posted an expected-goals share of 53.9 per cent at five-on-five.
“I think every player wants to elevate their game in the playoffs,” Hyman said. “It’s what you play for. The regular season is almost like a trial for the playoffs, and that’s when the real hockey starts. And you want to be a player that has success in those games.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve elevated my game in the past. Maybe it hasn’t shown statistically, but I just want to continue to help the team win and keep moving forward.”
The Oilers’ rising tide reflects the elevation of a lot of players. Kane had a hat trick on Friday and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the talented by distant third centre behind McDavid and Draisaitl, scored twice.
Sophomore defenceman Evan Bouchard had two assists and Cody Ceci had three assists, was plus-four and led the Oilers with 22:08 of ice time. Cody Ceci!
No wonder Woodcroft laid an “esprits de corps” on the media to describe his team’s spirit and togetherness even if almost nobody, including the players, knew what he meant.
The Kings are supposed to be the sum-of-its-parts entry in this first-round series, but the Oilers, with their depth contributions and balanced ice times, just trounced them 6-0 and 8-2 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven and look the far better “team.”
“Woody said it best: team camaraderie is everything,” Hyman said. “You enjoy playing with guys, you enjoy being around them and you want to win, you want to play as long as you can, right? It makes it that much better when everybody enjoys being around each other.”
Winning by a touchdown doesn’t hurt, either.
Hyman’s heft and grit, his ability to finish and his willingness to play in front of the market blast furnace seem perfectly suited to the Oilers.
“As a player, you know your abilities and you want to push them to the limit,” he said. “And the playoffs are the time to do it. That’s when things get tougher. It’s a stage, right?”