Toronto Star

Hyman embraces line change

Ex-Leaf is about to find out if grass is greener on McDavid’s wing

- Chris Johnston Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based independen­t journalist covering NHL and the Maple Leafs for NordStar’s new gaming company. His work will also be appearing in the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterch­ris

Before Zach Hyman could truly begin to wrap his mind around free agency this summer, he needed some finality with the Maple Leafs.

The sides had decided to put off discussion­s on an extension until after the season, according to Hyman, and so it wasn’t until some point in July where it truly dawned on the Toronto kid that he’d be entering the market for a new home.

“When I was in Toronto my goal was to stay in Toronto. I think that was pretty clear,” said Hyman. “For me I wanted to make a decision on the Leafs and be like ‘OK, is this happening or is that not happening?’ Because I couldn’t have it in the back of my mind, ‘OK, is Toronto going to come up with an offer?’ ”

Cap limitation­s kept the organizati­on from ever getting into Hyman’s ballpark, even with the ability to sign him to a maximum term eight-year deal. But the Leafs showed good will by granting him and agent Todd Reynolds permission to speak with other teams a couple weeks before free agency opened, which meant a lot to Hyman.

It was only during that window where the 29-year-old winger could start seeing his opportunit­y for what it was: the bitterswee­t end of his time in Toronto, yes, but also the beginning of a promising new chapter.

The excitement pours out of him now.

He made a one-day trip back to Toronto this week for the NHL’s player media tour but has otherwise been busy setting down roots in Edmonton.

That includes preparing to take possession of a house and ramping up workouts with Oilers teammates in anticipati­on of training camp.

Armed with his new $38.5million (U.S.) contract and an expected spot on Connor McDavid’s wing, this is a pretty darn good Plan B.

“I said this to my wife: ‘Change is good,’ ” Hyman said. “I think that when you’re in a place for so long things kind of remain stagnant from a personal situation. I know my role in Toronto, I know what I can do in Toronto and then it’s like, ‘Well, what if I went somewhere else? How much can I develop my game? Could I be a better player in another situation?’

“So you start to think about those things.”

It’s a notable flip in mindset because Hyman’s entire pro career has been carved out with effort and persistenc­e. He’s also become the guy you want beside The Guy.

More than 60 per cent of his career 5-on-5 minutes have been played alongside Auston Matthews and, in McDavid, he’s teaming up with an even more supercharg­ed point producer.

Hyman’s own production steadily grew in his five NHL seasons and Matthews believes there’s an easy explanatio­n for it.

“I think he doesn’t get enough credit for how much he improved his skills and his hands,” Matthews said. “He’s not a sexy hockey player, but he gets it done in the right way.”

We’re still almost a month away from his Oilers debut and Hyman has already made a strong first impression. Eyes were opened when he and his wife, Alannah, made a scouting trip to Edmonton before free agency and he requested permission to use the team gym rather than miss a day.

More recently, he spent time working out with trainer Gary Roberts in Aurora and joined a minigroup of Oilers there that included McDavid, Darnell Nurse, Devin Shore and Warren Foegele.

That was where Nurse came to understand why Hyman had so much fuel for their frequent on-ice battles in last year’s North Division. He also identified a special quality in his new teammate that should help take the Oilers program up a notch. “You just see the work and compete that he brings every day,” Nurse said. “There’s certain people I think that you bring into your organizati­on and … they bring something you can’t pay for, that can’t be taught.”

Ultimately, what took Hyman to Edmonton beyond his nice seven-year contract were the parallels to the situation he left behind: the chance to join forces with elite talent and be part of a program starving for a breakthrou­gh.

And it comes with some advantages that he didn’t previously enjoy in a place where he often found himself pulled in multiple directions during the season.

“It’s nice to go to a city where you don’t know as many people, you don’t have as many obligation­s and things like that,” he said.

“Obviously there are benefits to playing in your hometown, but there are benefits to going somewhere else and being somewhere more quiet with your family and kind of just focusing on your craft and kind of going all-in on it.”

If history is an indicator, good things tend to happen when Hyman goes all-in.

 ?? MARK BLINCH GETTY IMAGES ?? Oilers centre Connor McDavid won’t have to play against Zach Hyman anymore, after Hyman joined him in Edmonton.
MARK BLINCH GETTY IMAGES Oilers centre Connor McDavid won’t have to play against Zach Hyman anymore, after Hyman joined him in Edmonton.
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