April 23rd, 2024

‘I haven’t had the easiest journey’: Oilers’ Zach Hyman reflects on path to 50 goals

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on March 25, 2024.

Edmonton Oilers' Zach Hyman (18) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) celebrate a goal against the Washington Capitals during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Wednesday March 13, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Zach Hyman was never – not once – the best player on his team.

Or the fastest. Or the one with the most skill.

That didn’t matter. Hyman was focused on things he could control.

His work ethic, his relentless drive, an engine that never seems to quit.

“I haven’t had the easiest journey,” said the Edmonton Oilers winger. “Nobody thought I would continue to progress.”

Hyman has not only progressed – he’s now in elite NHL company.

The Toronto native selected with the 123rd pick at the 2010 draft scored his 50th goal of the season Sunday at age 31, becoming the third-oldest player in league history to crack the half-century mark for the first time.

“Just continue to hit little milestones and continue to work really hard and just believe in yourself,” Hyman said over the weekend of his path. “There’s so much noise, and as you get to higher levels there’s more noise and there’s always people who are questioning your abilities.”

That head-down, prove-others-wrong process took him from the second-tier Ontario Junior Hockey League to the University of Michigan, where he worked his way up the depth chart to be named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA men’s player in 2015.

The Florida Panthers traded Hyman’s rights to his hometown Maple Leafs later that year before his professional career got going with American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies the following season.

That’s where he earned the nickname “Shaq Hyman” in honour of former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal because of a willingness to get to the hardest area on the ice to make a living – the goal crease’s blue paint.

Hyman made his NHL debut with the Leafs in February 2016, but the job was far from done, again using his grinding, mistake-averse style to step into roles alongside stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

The six-foot-one, 201-pound forward scored 21 times in 51 games with Toronto in 2019-20 before COVID-19 shuttered the league. He put up another 15 goals in 43 contests over the course of the subsequent pandemic-truncated season as unrestricted free agency loomed.

Hyman desperately wanted to stay with the only NHL team he knew, but when the Leafs’ door emphatically closed, he turned his focus to Edmonton, agreeing to a seven-year contract worth US$5.5-million annually that ties him to the Alberta capital through 2027-28.

“Everybody goes through situations in their life where big changes happen,” said Hyman, who along with wife Alannah, has two sons. “You have to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations.

“And now we’re here.”

The fit couldn’t be more perfect – and the Oilers couldn’t be happier.

Hyman had 27 and 36 goals his first two seasons playing with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl before taking his game even higher in 2023-24 for a team currently second in the Pacific Division.

“Goes about it differently than maybe an Auston Matthews,” McDavid said. “But he’s a great goal-scorer.”

Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch, who took over in November with the team in a tailspin, said Hyman’s success is about more than his linemates and the club’s elite power play.

“Zach does so many things well,” Knoblauch said. “He’s able to possess the puck and not give it away, which allows Connor to make those plays.

“But the biggest thing is how good he is around the net. Whether it’s a deflection, a backdoor tip, just fighting for space, not getting tied up.”

Hyman is also loved inside the locker room.

“Somebody that everyone looks up to,” Knoblauch added. “My time here has confirmed everything I heard about him.

“So positive, upbeat, works hard in practice, ultimate team guy.”

Speaking of teams, Hyman’s scoring prowess and chemistry alongside McDavid has him firmly on Canada’s international radar with the NHL’s 4 Nations Face-Off tournament set for next February before the league’s Olympic return in 2026.

“Every player’s dream is to play for your country,” he said. “If I do end up getting there – it’s still a while away – that’d be pretty special.”

And Hyman won’t be changing the approach that got him to this point.

“You just have to have an inner drive and an inner belief and an inner work ethic that if you do things right every day, good things are gonna happen,” he said. “And even if they don’t, you can look at yourself and say, ‘Hey, I tried my best.’

“That’s a message that I’ve always given to myself.”

No one is going to argue the results.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2024.

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