THE DAILY GRIND
Grinder’s diligent work more important than ever if star can’t face Bruins
Zach Hyman’s diligent dirty work down low for the Maple Leafs tends to fly under the radar . . . but it’s a bit different without Auston Matthews.
Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman isn’t about to panic about playing on a line without the injured Auston Matthews.
The fact is that Hyman remains a solid two-way player with a forechecking pedigree that very few NHL players can match.
He’s also got 1,500-game veteran Patrick Marleau as his centre for now, and hard-working Connor Brown on the other wing.
“No one replaces Auston, and no one’s trying to,” Hyman said after the Leafs’ Thursday practice, on the eve of the opener of a home-and-home set against the Boston Bruins.
Line combinations are in a state of flux without Matthews, but the pressure is squarely on his regular linemates — Hyman and William Nylander — to maintain their level of play, whoever they play with in the meantime, until the superstar centre returns from an undisclosed upperbody injury.
Coach Mike Babcock said Matthews is day-to-day, which would mean he plays this weekend. But with four days off after Saturday’s game in Boston, the Leafs might choose to wait and ease him back into action next week.
The trend of granting elite-level players an unofficial respite during the season, a big issue in the NBA, has taken root more and more in hockey.
Matthews said only that he felt “soreness” that came back in the loss to St. Louis last Saturday — the Leafs’ fourth game in six nights. It’s possible that Matthews was slashed on the arm at some point and tried to play through it, but the problem worsened under the heavy workload.
“If he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go,” Babcock said.
“I’m not gonna give you guys an update every day. When you see him on the ice again, that means he’s a step closer. The kid wants to play. It’s not serious, but it’s something we’ve got to get fixed.”
For Hyman, changing linemates could alter his game — which is to forecheck “like a machine,” as Babcock recently said. At his best, Hyman — while facing the opposition’s top defence pairs on a regular basis — is working hard down low and feeding Matthews and Nylander for scoring chances. He was on his game in Wednesday night’s 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild. On one occasion, he spotted Marleau in good position, fed him the puck and the result was Marleau’s sixth goal of the season.
Hyman received a round of applause from Leafs fans and high praise from Babcock for his spade work on the play.
For his part, Hyman credited some masterful work without the puck by the 38-year-old Marleau, in his first season as a Leaf.
“You saw that on his goal, just watching it . . . a little, subtle thing he did. He stopped up when he was rushing for the net and he created a space there,” Hyman said.
“A lot of guys keep skating to the net, but he created a lane for me to get him that pass. That’s what goal scorers do.”
The assist was the fifth of the season for Hyman. While not an elite producer, he has nine points after 17 games and is on pace for 20-plus goals and about 25 assists — which would breeze past last season’s 10 goals and 18 assists. Hyman knows Brown’s game well. “We played about 30 games together last year, and we played a lot together with the Marlies,” Hyman said.
“I know how he plays, and he works hard. You know where he’s going to be, and when you go into those corner battles you know he’s going to be there with you. It’s always fun to play with a player who wants the puck back.”
Hyman is that type of player himself. And whether Matthews is in the lineup or not, it’s players such as Hyman and Brown who will help the Leafs establish their identity this season.
Zach Hyman, denied on a wraparound attempt against Zane McIntyre and the Bruins last February, does the dirty work down low for the Leafs.