The Toronto Maple Leafs will be one of the most interesting teams to watch in the 2019-20 regular season of the NHL. They have heaps of pressure that the entire hockey world has put on them, but are talented enough to surpass even those lofty expectations.

Surely the three consecutive first-round losses sting like a nagging mosquito bite while trying to hike up a mountain — it will constantly be brought up through the season if they like it or not.

Having a team with so many high-skill players, they lend themselves to criticism. Whether it’s how GM Kyle Dubas built the team or how Head Coach Mike Babcock is coaching the team, there will be consistent onslaughts of comments suggesting how they should operate.

There will always be discussions on certain line configurations or what player should be given the most time on the power play;  loads to discuss and complain about during the season. But all of that isn’t possible with those talented players that the Leafs have.

They are the front-line players that will perform at the highest level throughout the season and will be the ones that have the greatest responsibility to win games. Beyond them though, there are the complimentary forwards that fill the rest of the lineup and supply the stars with the puck and support on the ice. The type of players that will be heralded every once in a while, but not on a consistent basis for having stepped up and scored some goals any particular night.

Zach Hyman is essentially the perfect depth player and he demonstrated that throughout his tenure in Toronto. He’s earned enough praise from Mike Babcock himself, earlier telling anecdotes of the team in the video room and Hyman always is highlighted for doing the right thing — just small instances like that.

This is why he’s been able to play so well with two of the top players in the NHL in John Tavares and Mitch Marner last season. It’s not simply putting him with whatever players make sense from a talent scale down the left side, but his style of play is suited to blend well with those types of players.

Even as early as his time with the Toronto Marlies, Hyman was linked directly with William Nylander and was his winger consistently through their time in the AHL together. He has a knack for being the complimentary player that just works.

Although it’s quite obvious that the more talented players do a lot on their respective forward lines, it’s players like Hyman that provide a base for them to stand on.

In a game against the Anaheim Ducks last season, the Hyman-Tavares-Marner line opened the game and had a high-pressure 30 seconds right from the first faceoff. All three of them were executing the plan, but it was Hyman that was able to put insane pressure on the two Ducks at the half-boards to turn the puck over to Tavares on the other side of the ice.

Then he was able to protect and keep the puck from Corey Perry long enough to make an excellent — albeit risky — pass to Marner at the faceoff dot, who then was able to create a rebound and almost secure a goal for Hyman.

If there was one shift to demonstrate the left-winger’s worth on that line, it would be this opening one against the Ducks in February of last year.

This is essentially why he should be noted as the most important forward for this upcoming season. There are justifiable expectations for the stars — Matthews and Tavares will score goals, Marner will make incredible passes, Nylander will blow by defenders easily, etc. — but for all the supporting cast, if they aren’t up to their peak performance, then the rest will suffer. Hyman is the quintessential support forward, without him doing what he was able to do last year, that could mean less actual goals for his linemates.

It is odd to say this about a player that just scored 21 goals and 41 points through 71 games last season, but it’s all the little things that add up to Hyman being exceptional at what he does and throughout the year.

Similar to the previous clip, Hyman does his primary work without the puck. He pressures Red Wings defenceman Nick Jensen into the corner and forces an awkward backhand pass to no one on the other side of the ice. Tavares then takes the opportunity and takes the puck to then create a scoring chance.

Hyman ends up being the recipient of a weird shot-pass by Hainsey towards the goal, then receives the rebound and tries to score but is unlucky it didn’t end up in the back of the net.

Again, it’s the unit working together — Tavares protecting the puck and able to hand it off to Marner who sends it to Hainsey easily — but Hyman’s ability to forecheck and force the opposition to make a quick decision that could cost them, is valuable.

Against the Rangers last season, all the work paid off but this wasn’t from an undying forecheck, but rather being the forward entering the zone and the right time and setting up in the right area of the ice.

The counter-attack led by Rielly and Marner was born from Hyman trying to protect the puck and getting hit into the corner, but he was still able to enter the zone as that fourth player and reap the rewards. It took the puck to bounce and Tavares’ quick hands to see the open Hyman and get it to him with a backhand, but again, he was there.

Shifts — and goals — like these are why Hyman is able to get so many quality scoring chances no matter what.

When Hyman was on the ice last season at even-strength, he had the 8th-highest expected goals for per 60 minutes among all forwards throughout the NHL. At a rate of 3.31 xGF/60, he was contributing to quality offensive chances at a rate above established stars like Joe Pavelski (3.24), Sidney Crosby (3.09), and Mark Stone (3.12).

Those other players are heralded for their offence generation, but Hyman has been seen as someone that simply rides along with his linemates and benefits greatly. While Marner (2.97) and Tavares (3.13) aren’t far behind and still within the top-100 of all skaters, it’s the other linemate that is simply able to generate a higher rate of quality scoring chances.

But balancing the quality and quantity of those scoring opportunities is a tough concept.

viz by Sean Tierney / data by EvolvingWild

For every shot that Hyman takes, there’s a greater chance — through expected goals — that it will end up in the back of the net. But considering that he’s just slightly above league average when it comes to his rate of individual shot attempts,  there isn’t a lot of data to go off on. While his linemates shoot the puck much more than he does, they generate a much lower expected goals rate with each shot.

Marner is well above the league mark when it comes to his rate of shot attempts, but he is ever so slightly below the average when it comes to expected goals per shot attempt — his 0.0427 xGoals with each shot, while the league average is 0.0429.

When it’s all spread out through the season, valuing both expected goals per shot and the raw amount of shot attempts each player has, it simply becomes their raw expected goals total. In that forward line, it’s quite obvious that Tavares had the most individually with the highest amount of shots but also a high quality — but not the highest — each time.

Player iCF/60 xGoals per iCF Total xGoals
John Tavares 16.85 0.0694 24.84
Zach Hyman 12.46 0.0762 15.92
Mitch Marner 15.38 0.0427 13.57

While Marner does shoot the puck more than Hyman, his total expected goals last season was still below the other winger because of the amount of high-danger opportunities he  was able to take. Tavares is in a whole other world at this point, but considering the trio as a unit, they’re extremely dangerous no matter what.

Hyman is a massive part of that line and is still able to provide offence while cast in a supporting role. He will never be the main player on any line he plays on, but he is still able to have value.

It’s not often that Hyman is able to take control of an odd-man rush, but against the Sabres last season he had one with Marner and decided to take the shoot option rather than the pass.

This scoring chance was worth 0.194 expected goals and was his 16th-highest event in that metric last season. If he had passed the puck across to Marner, it would have surely been a less likely scoring scenario. Marner was well-enough covered by the backchecking Ristolainen and made the pass difficult, especially considering that Hyman would have had to make the pass less balanced because of his handedness and what side of the ice he was on.

But maybe he makes the perfect pass and we’re heralding his innate playmaking ability instead of generating scoring chances. It’s all hypothetical, but Hyman made the safe play and it resulted in what could have been a goal considering all the factors.

Adding up all of those little moments and contributions Hyman has on the ice isn’t always easy. Most go extremely unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. Such as him being able to add pressure and take the puck away to begin that whole counter-attack with Marner in the previous clip.

But keeping track of all the takeaways, giveaways, shot attempts, shots against, etc. — there’s always Wins Above Replacement. Tallying every little thing and adding a contextual weight behind the event, it’s perfect to highlight players like Hyman that are a coach’s dream but could warrant questions from fans why he’s playing so many minutes.

All of this adds up to how many “wins” he’s worth above a player that’s readily available anytime and is easily replaced like a faceless entity that supplies mediocre production.

Using Corsica’s WAR metric, Hyman had a WAR of 2.33 last season, the 43rd-highest among all skaters with at least 200 TOI last season. The only teammates of his that had a higher amount was Auston Matthews (2.82 WAR) and John Tavares (3.87 WAR). All the quality scoring chances, defensive events, drawing penalties, and other under-the-radar contributions gives Hyman a higher value than all but two Leafs last season.

Of course it helps that he was put into that situation because of what players he played with. But looking at just what exactly he was able to do on the ice, he contributed more to the whole success of the team than what he is usually awarded with. In context, the median across all 712 skaters (min. 200 TOI) last season was 0.13 WAR — meaning that Hyman was roughly worth 2.2 more wins than the average NHL skater last year.

Around his value mark, there’s bonafide stars. Mikko Rantanen (2.22 WAR), Sean Monahan (2.12 WAR), and Taylor Hall (1.52 WAR), are just some players that have been recently described as top-tier players but in the end, Hyman was worth more last season. It comes down to not exactly knowing what to value in a player and that could be a whole different topic of player evaluation in hockey, but what Toronto’s left-winger is able to do on the ice is extremely valuable to keeping the Leafs’ success in the regular season.

It’s often enough that fans and media members alike, want to describe a player’s talent level on what they were able to do. “A 30-goal scorer”, “able to get you 60 points”, “his playmaking ability will get them 40 assists this season” — all of this is based on the eventual boxscore stat that is tallied during the game and doesn’t get to the core of what a player’s value is.

Hyman might be the poster boy when it comes to a player that is considered to be a top-tier player in the NHL but doesn’t put up all those goals and assists. He makes his teammates better and is worth more wins than players that do score 40 or so goals.

It’s a matter of the little things and that’s why he is extremely important to this upcoming season for the Leafs. If his play declines and isn’t what it was last year, then Marner and Tavares could see an eventual decline in play and a domino effect could happen.

It’s hypothetical, but if Hyman was simply that 0.13-win average player last season, that’s at least four points in the standings, putting them even with the Canadiens and could be battling for a Wild Card spot in the end. All of those little events on the ice add up, and for Hyman, that’s where his value lies.

Beyond the high-powered forwards the Leafs have, the 27-year-old winger contributes enough to garner more attention than he currently does throughout the season.

It will all depend on what exactly happens for the next nine months, but if the Leafs aren’t in a desirable position and Hyman’s shot quality generation and general ability isn’t completely there, then the whole forward group could potentially see a decline in production.

It’s as if Hyman is the hinge that could connect the high-talented Leafs to the rest of the depth players. He can play with them all but it’s when they connect they work well together and that line with Tavares and Marner work extremely well, as seen in the first clip against the Ducks.

All in all, there’s going to be a lot more forwards than just the highly-skilled making contributions and Hyman should continue being the valuable player that he has been the past few years. He won’t get the high point totals or jaw-dropping goals, but throughout the season — if he is healthy — he will be depended on to lift the other player to their peak performance level.

It’s a balance between what your Uncle from Stratford says about intangibles and what coaches say about a hard-working player — it might not feel the greatest seeing a player “worth” more than a player with higher point totals, but it’s all right there.

Hyman is clearly that to this team and he will be depended on more than ever to keep the line and rest of the team moving in the right direction.

— data via Evolving-Hockey —