When hearts are high, the time will fly, so whistle while you work,” urges the famous song in Disney’s 1937 animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s a fitting mantra for an NHL player who pens children’s books. Zach Hyman doesn’t literally whistle while he works, as far as we know, yet he does everything but, according to those who toil alongside him.
Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett calls Hyman “very positive, an energetic guy with a smile on his face, seems like he’s always in a good mood, just a genuine, very good person.” Defenseman Darnell Nurse describes Hyman’s upbeat personality and work ethic as “infectious.” So what gives Hyman such a spring in his step these days?
It probably starts with the seven-year, $38.5-million contract he signed this past summer to become the Oilers’ first-line left winger. He’s particularly peppy because he gets to share a line with the greatest hockey talent of this generation and perhaps any other: Connor McDavid, the superstar scoring at a rate not seen since Mario Lemieux ripped it up in the mid-1990s.
After Hyman signed his contract, did he start dreaming up scenarios of skating with No. 97? Of course. Wouldn’t you?
“All the time,” Hyman said, adding a joking caveat to “not sleep on” superstar center Leon Draisaitl. “That was a major factor in why I chose Edmonton. Obviously Connor is special, and he’s doing things that are unheard of, and to be a part of his career and potentially play with him is definitely one of the reasons I chose Edmonton. Of course you get excited for the start of the year. In your head, you map out who you may play with.”
The pull of Edmonton was undeniable for Hyman, 29. But there was also a “push” at play. He’d reached a point in his career at which a divorce from his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, made a surprising amount of sense. Why?
First off: the on-ice anguish. He’d exited 2020-21 experiencing what most of the players on the team called the most devastating in a series of disappointments spanning half a decade. The Leafs had won the temporarily realigned North Division, which was guaranteed an entrant among the final four teams in the Stanley Cup playoff bracket. They opened the post-season with, unofficially, their best Stanley Cup odds in more than 15 years. Minutes into Game 1 of their first-round series against Montreal, Leafs captain John Tavares sustained a disturbing head injury, catching an errant knee from Habs right winger Corey Perry, and was stretchered off the ice.
Looking back on the horrific incident, which knocked Tavares out for the playoffs, Hyman admits Game 1 was a write-off. The Leafs’ hearts were with their captain, hockey became secondary and they lost that game. They fought back to take a 3-1 series lead but ended up choking it away on home ice in Game 7.
That meant Hyman was part of five consecutive first-round exits. None hurt more than 2021’s.
“Last year’s loss for Toronto, for us, was the worst I’ve ever experienced,” Hyman said. “We were as close as we’d ever been, we had the chance to win the series, and the path for us to get to the final and potentially win was there. I thought we had a great team. The team was top in the North all year. I thought we could beat anybody. With the missed opportunities, just, I didn’t want to watch (the rest of the playoffs). It was too hard. But that’s hockey. You play that series over 100 times and I think it turns out in our favor more so than not.”
Hyman had spent most of last season wanting to remain a Leaf. The “problem”: he played too well in his UFA walk year. With 15 goals and 33 points in 43 games, he produced the best per-game stat line of his career while also playing an inspiring, hardnosed style in all situations. With a similarly aged, similarly skilled but less versatile Brendan Gallagher establishing a contract comparable with a six-year, $39-million deal signed in October 2020, it was clear Hyman could score a long-term deal more than doubling last season’s AAV of $2.25 million on the open market.
The Leafs, already spending more than $40 million on their star forward quartet of Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, needed to squirrel away cap space to sign a goalie and extend defenseman Morgan Rielly’s contract. The crushing playoff defeat created an urgency to reshape the roster, and the Leafs gave permission for Hyman to speak with other teams, which he appreciated.
Rather than risk a Groundhog Day scenario in Toronto, he allowed himself to get excited about playing elsewhere.
“I said this to my wife: change is good,” Hyman said. “When you’re in a place for so long, things remain stagnant from a personal standpoint. 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? Can I be a better player in that situation? So you start to think about those things and, for me, the best hockey fit was Edmonton.”
Edmonton also represented an exciting personal fit for Hyman. That may come as a surprise given he was born and raised in Toronto, he met his wife, Alannah Mozes, there, most of their close family and friends live there and he usually considered that a wonderful blessing. But playing away from all the personal ties offers a better opportunity to immerse himself in the sport.
“It’s nice to go to a city where you don’t know as many people,” Hyman said. “You don’t have as many obligations. You can focus on your family and your hockey and your work and not being pulled in a million different directions. Even though those directions are nice, it can be tiresome sometimes. Obviously, there are benefits to playing in your hometown, but there are benefits to going somewhere else and being somewhere quieter with your family, focusing on your craft and going all-in on it.”
The Oilers were all-in on him, too. As Tippett explains, they “did a lot of homework” on Hyman. Oilers assistant coach Brian Wiseman was an assistant coach at the University of Michigan for Hyman’s four-year career there and knew firsthand what he could bring to Edmonton. Facing the Leafs nine times last year in North Division play, the Oilers also had many looks at the NHL version of Hyman.
“We had a really good idea of what we were getting,” Tippett said. “When you’re watching from afar and coaching against him, you understand he’s in a lot of situations. He gives the coach such versatility with what he can do: penalty kill, power play, key times in the game, just work ethic on certain situations. As a coach, you really appreciate all the attributes he has to have an impact on the game.”
Added Nurse: “Every time we played him, it was just battle, battle, battle. We just go at each other the whole time. So it’s funny, when we picked him up, he was like, ‘Finally we don’t have to battle each other.’ I’m like ‘Yep, it’s nice.’ ”
Hyman’s tenacious game, punctuated by fast and fearless puck retrievals and absorbing net-front punishment, batters his body. In his final three seasons as a Leaf, ankle and knee injuries cost him 40 of 208 games (he missed three more via suspension or illness), meaning he missed around 20 percent of Toronto’s schedule. When he signed a seven-year pact that takes him to 36, skepticism over whether he could deliver full value for the entirety of the deal was warranted. Players of his ilk commonly deteriorate in their early 30s.
But the Oilers probably weren’t worrying about that when they signed him. They understand they need to make deep playoff runs in the next couple seasons, while McDavid and Draisaitl are peaking like no teammates since Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Few if any pundits expressed doubt Hyman could seriously help the Oilers short term, and he did exactly that to start 2021-22. In the season’s first fifth, he was on pace for his first 40-goal season. He led NHL forwards in individual high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. That was before he and the Oilers slumped badly in December and into January.
Does it help that Hyman started so strongly playing on a dominant line with McDavid and Jesse Puljujarvi? Sure, but not all players can excel alongside sublime talents. Hyman was extremely effective with Matthews and Marner in Toronto, too, and prides himself on his ability to keep up with superstars.
“I’m comfortable playing with elite talents,” Hyman said. “I’ve seen in the past, when guys get placed with guys of elite caliber, you try to change your game and over-pass or get the puck to them too much. But playing with Auston or playing with Mitch, playing with ‘JT’ or Willy, I’ve had the experience of playing with guys that always want the puck, and Connor’s no different.”
It’s a disservice to Hyman, however, to portray him as some fortunate passenger who keeps stumbling onto lines with superstars. There’s a reason he can stick with them. As Tippett sees it, there’s also more than one way to define skill.
“You can have high-skill guys that have great hands and grab the thing, and they look like they can dangle and shoot it quick, but Hyman’s skill is really a by-product of his work ethic, because he uses his skill in small spaces, he controls pucks in small spaces,” Tippett said. “He reminds me very much of a player I had for years in Dallas: Jere Lehtinen. I used to marvel at…there’d be a puck bouncing around, and there’d be four guys whacking at it, and somehow Lehtinen would always end up getting it under control and bringing it out of the pile, and that’s what Hyman does. He gets in those scrums. It’s not pure ‘skill’ like when you see a guy flying down the ice, but there’s a skill to (controlling) the puck in small areas under pressure, and that’s where he’s very good.”
So Hyman is every bit the fit the Oilers hoped he’d be. Will his personal success translate into the greatest team success of his NHL career? He’s yet to get past the first round, but the Oilers were Pacific Division frontrunners through late November, with McDavid and Draisaitl tracking at the time for the greatest single-season numbers of any NHLers this millennium. All the goodwill has evaporated in recent weeks, however, largely because the Oilers are desperate for goaltending help with greybeard Mike Smith injured and backup Mikko Koskinen struggling – a deadly mix for a team that allows too many high-danger chances at 5-on-5. Talent wise, however, Edmonton should have its deadliest team in the McDavid era, its best chance for a deep playoff run.
Given Edmonton has also struggled to escape the early rounds of the playoffs, Hyman sees a similar hunger there as was present in Toronto. He has the chance to exorcise those old demons, in a way, while simultaneously trying something new. He does so with an energy that seems to have spread rapidly in the Oilers room, fostering a more positive tone than has been customary in the McDavid Era.
“There are certain people that you bring into your organization and they just bring something that can’t be taught,” Nurse said. “That’s the work, coming each and every day. It’s not even a question: he practises the same way, works out the same way, he’s going to play the same way. It doesn’t matter what kind of day he’s having away from the rink. It doesn’t matter if he scored 20 goals or two goals. He’s going to bring the same work ethic every day. He’s going to be around a long time, and we’re lucky to have him around a long time.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Hockey News’ World Junior Championship preview issue.