hyman sitdown tonight

EDMONTON -- What a difference five years makes.

Back in the summer of 2019, Zach Hyman was hobbling down a downtown Toronto sidewalk when he passed Kasa Moto, a swanky Japanese eatery in the upscale neighborhood of Yorkville. The then-Toronto Maple Leafs forward needed the aid of crutches to walk, having just come off surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee suffered in an Eastern Conference First Round series against the Boston Bruins in April.

He stopped momentarily to peek through the restaurant window and couldn’t believe who he saw inside.

It was Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers captain.

And the first thing Hyman noticed: McDavid was on crutches too!

“I didn’t know him that well at the time, at least not personally, but I knew he was rehabbing his own knee injury,” Hyman told NHL.com in a 1-on-1 sit-down Tuesday. “The fact that I arbitrarily spotted him in there and we were both on crutches, that’s crazy, especially what’s happened since then.

“Just crazy.”

That’s an understatement.

Consider that half a decade later, the two have fully healed, become linemates with the Oilers, are best of friends, and have the opportunity to help Edmonton become the first Canadian-based team to win a Stanley Cup in 31 years.

Theirs has the making of a storybook tale, which would be fitting since Hyman, along with being one of the top-scoring wings in the National Hockey League, is also an author, having penned three children’s books: "The Bambino and Me," "Hockey Hero" and "The Magician’s Secret."

Should the Oilers go on to defeat the Florida Panthers in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final, which begins with Game 1 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, SN, TVAS, CBC), can we expect a fourth book from Hyman? Maybe a work called "Zach, Connor and their buddy Stanley"?

Hyman laughs. Slow down, he says. It’s far too early for that.

Maybe. But what is not premature to say, however, is that Hyman’s career has taken on a storybook plot of its own.

“What he’s doing is pretty remarkable,” Oilers general manager Kenny Holland said. “Just take a look at his numbers.

“I mean, when we signed him as a free agent in 2021 for seven years at a deal worth $38.5 million, which is $5.5 million per year, we hoped we were getting at best a guy who would score 20-30 goals per year.

“He has way, way, way exceeded our wildest expectations.”

Holland points to Hyman’s statistics as proof.

From 2015-2021, his first six seasons in the NHL, the Toronto native scored 86 goals in 345 games for the Maple Leafs, about .25 per game. He scored five times in 32 postseason games for Toronto, which is .156 per game.

After signing with the Oilers, those numbers have spiked dramatically.

In three seasons with Edmonton, he has scored 117 goals in 235 regular-season games, which works out to .498 per game. His playoff numbers are even more impressive; 28 goals in 46 games, which is at a .609 per game pace.

“Think about that,” Holland said. “The hardest thing to do in this league is score goals. It’s even harder to do that in the playoffs when open ice is desperately hard to find. And right now, when you look at what he’s done for us in the postseason since being here, he’s at a pace that would translate to a 50-goal regular season.

“He’s answered the bell for us when it’s mattered the most.”

To Holland’s point: Hyman leads all players in goals in the 2024 postseason with 14. Should he score five times against the Panthers, he would tie the all-time record for one playoff year of 19 held by the Philadelphia Flyers’ Reggie Leach (1975-1976) and the Oilers’ Jari Kurri (1984-1985).

His ascension as a goal-scorer has been evident ever since he put on an Oilers jersey. Having never scored more than 21 goals with the Maple Leafs, he’s set career highs in each of his three seasons with Edmonton: 27 in 2021-2022, 36 in 2022-2023, 54 this season, third in the NHL behind only Toronto’s Auston Matthews (69) and Florida’s Sam Reinhart (57).

Reinhart and Hyman are going above and beyond

Why so much recent success, especially at age 31, four or five years after most players have hit their peak?

“As far as the age thing goes, remember, he played four years at the University of Michigan, so he didn’t really start playing regularly in the NHL until he was 24, 25 years old,” Holland said. “So, he doesn’t really have the wear and tear on him of most players his age.

“As for the spike in goals, I think it’s because of two reasons. First, he’s on one of the league’s best power plays. Secondly, he plays with the best playmaker in the world.”

Indeed, there are times where Hyman has scored, then looks almost embarrassingly at McDavid who had just fed him with a ridiculous setup.

“Obviously if you would have cited some of these numbers to me years ago, like scoring 50-plus or leading all playoff scorers in goals, I’d have been in shock,” he admitted. “But coming off this year, goal scoring is now part of my game.

“I think I need to produce and be a part of the production. I play on the power play. And I play with Connor. If you play with Connor, you are going to get opportunities and you’ve got to score. That’s part of the job. That’s part of my job.

“Every year I’ve progressed somewhat. When I first came up into the League with Toronto (2015-2016) I wasn’t playing minutes, I wasn’t playing power play, I just wanted to stay in the lineup. I did some penalty killing. And when I did start playing with skilled players like Auston (Matthews) and Mitch (Marner), my job was to get the puck and get it to the skilled players, then go stand in front of the net.”

Through it all, slowly but surely, his confidence grew.

“Every year I’ve worked to progress and worked to develop a chemistry with the special players I play with,” Hyman said. “Look, I don’t have the hardest shot. I don’t score from 30 feet out. I don’t have a one-timer like (Alex) Ovechkin. I don’t shoot it like Auston or (Steven) Stamkos. But I do try to read the game and understand where I need to be, which is the hard areas in front of the net.”

So far, so good.

“I’ll tell you this much,” Holland said. “It’s damn well working.”

* * * * 

As the clock ticked down Sunday, with the Oilers leading 2-1 against the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final and a Stanley Cup Final berth at stake, Hyman tried to tune out the white noise.

But was hard. Very hard. Because it was, as he says, “damn loud.”

“The last five minutes were so, so intense,” he said. “And the noise, it’s hard to describe. We couldn’t hear each other on the bench because the fans were roaring the whole time. Out on the ice, we're getting pucks out of our end, they kept bringing them back in. It felt like an eternity.”

Until the final horn mercifully sounded. Then it didn’t.

The Oilers were going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2006. They had eliminated the Stars 4-2 in the best-of-7 series, and Rogers Place, if not the entire city, had busted out into a huge orange-and-blue clad party. So much so that when he attempted to do an on-ice post-game interview with TNT’s Jackie Redmond, the cheers from the giddy spectators drowned out her questions to the point where he couldn’t hear them.

Later, as he and wife Alannah were driving home from the arena, listening to the car horns of frenzied Oilers supporters honk deep into the night, he took time to enjoy the moment and think about being four wins away from a Stanley Cup victory.

“Coming here,” he said, “was the best decision of my life.”

DAL@EDM WCF, Gm6: Oilers beat Stars for Western Conference Final win

Make no mistake. As a Toronto native who’d grown up following the Maple Leafs, that is where he’d wanted to stay. But management was in a salary cap pinch in the summer of 2021 and decided to go in a different direction.

“It wasn’t about money,” he said. “I’d have loved to be a Maple Leaf for life. I was from there, our families were from there. But when that door closed and Edmonton had shown interest all along, it was the place I wanted to come.”

The Hymans flew out and toured the city. Deal sealed.

“It’s our home,” he said. “We built a house here. We’re raising our two boys here and are expecting a third in September. And, importantly, it was a place I thought I could win.”

Holland thought he could help the Oilers do exactly that, although not to the extent that he’s lighting up scoreboards like he is now.

“I met with our staff and we immediately identified Zach and Warren Foegele as targets,” Holland said. “We needed help in the cycle game and the dirty areas, and we thought Zach was ideal to help us in those aspects.”

Hyman said he called McDavid before signing. The message he got from the Oilers captain: You can help our team.

Prior to signing, he’d always spent his summers skating at the Ford Performance Centre in Etobicoke, the Maple Leafs training facility in the west end of Toronto. Once he was an Oiler, he felt that no longer was an option. McDavid told him to come up to Aurora, about 30 miles north of Toronto, and start working out during the offseason under the tutelage of former NHLer Gary Roberts, whose disciples also included Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog.

It was there where the on-ice chemistry between McDavid and Hyman started. And it’s been improving ever since.

“I like playing with him,” McDavid said. “He’s always around the net. I like to roam around and am not always in that area so it’s good to know someone’s going to be there at the net. And he’s there a lot.

“It just works.”

Not without some learning on Hyman’s part.

“When we first started skating together, well, I’d played with great players before, but he was different,” Hyman said of McDavid. “You always had to expect the unexpected and be ready. Because there was no such thing as him being in a position where you wouldn’t get a pass.

“I studied and learned to anticipate where to go out there. I mean, it’s been an honor to play with him. To me, he’s the best player in the world. I see it firsthand.”

Off the ice, too.

“I’ve never seen anyone work harder,” Hyman said. “I thought I was at the top when it came to offseason workouts. Then I saw him. He is so competitive. People say it’s his God-given talent and yes, that’s a part of it. But there’s more they don’t see. He pushes himself in everything he does.

“He’ll do anything to win. That’s all he cares about. And I’m the same. Given what’s still ahead of us, that’s the goal.”

* * * * 

From 1997-2019, Holland was the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings and helped that franchise win three Stanley Cups. In that time, he signed some marquee free agents such as future Hall of Fame forwards Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille.

“But given the contract and how much he’s exceeded expectations, Zach Hyman might be the best free agent signing I ever made,” Holland said.

That’s saying a lot. At the same time, should Hyman help the Oilers win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1990, it certainly will be an endorsement of Holland’s belief in him.

The Panthers will provide a formidable roadblock to that goal. They are an ideal blend of hustle and muscle, bringing to the table a far more physical game than the Stars.

Getting to the net in front of Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky will be a hard, sometimes bruising task. Hyman knows that. Most importantly, he’s not deterred by that.

“That’s part of my game,” he said. “And again, look what’s ahead of us. It’s been the belief and the goal in our room that we have the team that can win the Cup. And now we’re this close. And yes, it’ll be hard.”

He paused to chuckle.

“But it’s supposed to be hard.”

Indeed, no one ever said getting to a fairytale ending he’s on the verge of authoring would ever be easy, especially when he thinks back to the days when he and McDavid were both on crutches.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” he said. “Like I said, just crazy.”

Much like his own rags-to-riches story is right now.