How to determine the value of the indispensable Zach Hyman

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Justin Cuthbert
·4 min read
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TORONTO, ON - MARCH 09: Toronto Maple Leafs Left Wing Zach Hyman (11) celebrates his goal by the team bench during the NHL regular season game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 9, 2021, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman has become an indispensable part of the team. (Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For years, Zach Hyman has been the make-well for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

If a one-goal lead needs protecting, send Hyman. If a puck needs to be retrieved, send Hyman. If a line is struggling, try plugging in Hyman. The reason behind Player X's career season: in all likelihood, you may have guessed it, it's Zach Hyman.

But when all that you touch turns to gold, the expectation should be that you receive some shiny bricks in return.

So is the player that fixes everything for the Maple Leafs about to become the problem?

It wasn't too long ago that this wouldn't even be a consideration. As useful as Hyman has been in parts of six seasons with the organization, it seemed there was hard ceiling on a player with his talent base. It has always been utility over skill for Hyman, and contributors of his ilk generally settle into a fairly contained tax bracket. The four-year deal he signed in the summer of 2017 seemed like a fairly ambitious projection at the time, but also served as a reasonable price tag on a complimentary forward piece, which was the basic expectation of the player at the time.

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What has happened since is that Hyman has made considerable gains season-over-season, expanding his footprint and becoming more and more critical to the basic functionality of the franchise on a straight-line developmental trajectory.

In his first season as a $2.25 million forward, he immediately justified the raise, scoring a career-high 15 goals and reaching 40 points. He followed that season up by hitting the 20-goal mark and helped form one of the most dominant five-on-five lines in hockey with John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Then last season, which was shortened at both ends with Hyman recovering from major offseason knee surgery and of course the COVID-19 pandemic ending things abruptly, Hyman matched his career-best 21 goals in 20 fewer games, producing points at a rate that qualified him comfortably within the top 100 in the NHL.

Now this season, Hyman is being relied on to drive a line all on his own. And while assuming major defensive responsibilities on the newly-minted checking unit under head coach Sheldon Keefe, Hyman, along withe Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev, are out-shooting, out-chancing, and out-scoring the competition. In addition, Hyman is the choice to move up in the lineup when either scoring tandem needs a jolt, or Joe Thornton needs a breather on the top unit with Auston Matthews and Marner.

He is, almost always, the player Keefe turns to when something needs fixing. He has, in a word, become indispensable.

While that in itself isn't easily quantifiable, we're about to find out what that's worth.

Regrettably, Hyman's contract is set to expire at the end of the season. He's one of nine pending unrestricted free agents on the roster, and the one clearly most deserving of a raise. In a just world, he's making more than double his annual intake over the last four seasons as $5 million-plus forward next season. That's an amount of money the Leafs likely don't have. And surely he would find it on the open market if he does indeed make it there, and chooses to entertain other employers.

What the Leafs will hope for is that Hyman has little interest in playing elsewhere. This is a local kid that's achieved unanimous approval and celebrity within the fan base. As a new father, he's only further solidifying his Toronto roots. He's also involved in many things outside hockey as an owner of a local eSports team and a children's books author. For Hyman, the ties to the city are as strong as anyone's.

As it is with anything with Hyman again the question is, what's that worth?

That also applies to the fact that Hyman is turning 29 in a few months. It is far more palatable, handing out long-term extensions to players with skills that don't quickly depreciate. As successful as Hyman has been in on staying on the correct side of the aging curve, how close are we to the apex for a player whose best asset is his honest effort?

The negotiation ahead could be either incredibly simple or incredibly taxing. But the fact of the matter is the best version of the Maple Leafs now, and presumably for several years to come, includes Hyman. There's no way around that.

It's another massive task for the Maple Leafs' money team, which has barely wasted a penny in putting together a legitimate contender this season.

At some point, something will be expensed.

But the Leafs are probably too smart to make it be Hyman.

Because when there is a hole, or something left exposed, they'll have him there to fill it.

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