Hy­man em­braces puck pur­suit of ex­cel­lence

The Welland Tribune - - Sports - MARK ZWOLINSKI Mark Zwolinski is a sports re­porter based in Toronto. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @markz­wol

Most top-six for­wards would be wor­ried if their goal tally sat at one af­ter 15 games.

Zach Hy­man isn’t one of those play­ers.

The body of work he con­trib­utes to the team and the way he makes play­ers around him bet­ter is an im­por­tant el­e­ment to the Maple Leafs’ suc­cess. And while he re­mains fo­cused on the forecheck­ing and cy­cling he does best, Hy­man still has un­fin­ished work on his plate — im­prov­ing the chem­istry with line­mates John Tavares and Mitch Marner.

“I still think (our line chem­istry) can be a lot bet­ter, but you al­ways want to feel that way, keep push­ing and find­ing new ways to get bet­ter,” Tavares said as the Leafs prac­tised Thurs­day in prepa­ra­tion for Fri­day night’s Hall of Fame Game against the New Jersey Devils at Sco­tia­bank Arena.

“Be tough to play against, on the cy­cle, down low, in front of the net … be bet­ter at read­ing each other’s body lan­guage … and I’m work­ing on that with (Hy­man) as well.”

One would think chem­istry should come easy for the trio. Tavares and Marner are two of the finest play­mak­ers and puck­han­dlers in the league, while Hy­man could teach a class about puck re­trieval and forecheck­ing. Still, the line re­mains a work in progress.

Tavares is the least fa­mil­iar with the Leafs’ style of play and that of his two line­mates. Marner, for all his bril­liance this sea­son, is be­ing asked to bring more of the “heavy” play to the line. In other words, be more like Hy­man.

“I talked to (Marner) about that this morn­ing,” Leafs coach Mike Bab­cock said about im­prov­ing his puck pos­ses­sion. “They’re our heav­i­est line, they spend more time in the of­fen­sive zone and you just want them to keep on do­ing that.”

For Marner, it may be one of the tough­est things he will have to tailor into his game. Like Tavares, he en­tered the NHL as one of ju­nior hockey’s top of­fen­sive play­ers and was able to main­tain that level. Un­like Hy­man, he was never told to fo­cus on the 200-foot game, per­fect his penalty-killing skills, block shots and chase down op­pos­ing de­fence­men.

Marner has done an ad­mirable job while be­ing as­signed reg­u­lar duty on the penalty kill. He’s also gained roughly 10 pounds through sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion in the gym, and is a much more well-rounded player than at any other time in his pro ca­reer.

That’s key — and a re­flec­tion of the ex­am­ple Hy­man has set — since Bab­cock ex­pects ev­ery­one to play a heavy style, re­gard­less of tal­ent level.

“Zach, when he gets in on the forecheck, he makes it hard on the op­po­si­tion (de­fence­men),” Marner said. “He holds up a lot of guys and in the D-zone he is al­ways block­ing shots and gets in the lanes. He’s a great penalty killer … it’s pretty nice to have him on our line and on our team.”

Hy­man, a scor­ing star in ju­nior who be­came a more com­plete player un­der leg­endary Michi­gan Wolver­ines coach Red Beren­son, is taken aback when it’s men­tioned that he is one of the shin­ing ex­am­ples of what it takes to be suc­cess­ful in the NHL. He also knows it takes more than scor­ing goals.

“I’ve played long enough in the league to know (the puck) goes in some­times and some­times it doesn’t,” Hy­man said. “I don’t get too caught up in how many goals I score. When you get to the NHL, there’s only so many play­ers here who score a point a game, or 0.8 points a game, or some­thing like that. So you have to find a role, find a way to help your team win.

“When I was at Michi­gan, I learned the penalty kill and Red taught me about play­ing well at both ends of the ice. I started on the fourth line at Michi­gan and I ended up on the first line. I played with all kinds of su­per­star play­ers, and I learned how to play with them … and to find a way to be suc­cess­ful at this (NHL) level.”

STEVE RUS­SELL TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

Leaf Zach Hy­man, bat­tling Bren­dan Guhle of the Sabres, learned to be­come a more rounded player at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan.

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