Dave Feschuk: The Leafs’ Zach Hyman hopes to be the same player when he returns Wednesday on a rebuilt knee

Dave Feschuk: The Leafs’ Zach Hyman hopes to be the same player when he returns Wednesday on a rebuilt knee
As part of the elaborate operation to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament in Hyman’s right knee — the one that was torn during Game 4 of last spring’s first-round playoff series against the Bruins — three separate incisions were required. One of the cuts, which is now only visible as a faint thumbnail-length scar running north to south down the middle of Hyman’s kneecap, was needed to remove a chunk of Hyman’s healthy left-knee patellar tendon, which was used to replace the ravaged ACL.

The other two, now a pair of pink dots on the outside of the knee cap, provided access to insert the screws that attached the grafted ligament to the bone. If the technology employed was state of the art, Hyman will tell you the pain felt medieval.

“It’s debilitating at the start,” the Leafs winger was saying recently. “I couldn’t sleep for three weeks.”

All these months later, Hyman’s injury-induced absence has caused plenty of early-season restlessness in Leafland, where the blue and white have found themselves in the midst of a dispiriting slump. For the opening 19 games of the season, wherein the Maple Leafs have been an inconsistent mess of a team, they’ve clearly missed the whatever-it-takes relentlessness of Hyman’s approach. Toronto’s one-time first line, on which Hyman provided dependable puck-retrieving services to John Tavares and Mitch Marner a season ago, has been in shambolic without him.

Tavares, who led the team with 47 goals last year, is on pace for 21. Marner, who topped the Leafs with 94 points in 2018-19, was averaging a point a game when he suffered the Saturday ankle injury that is expected to keep him out at least a month. Hyman’s various stand-ins on the line haven’t approached replacing the 21 goals he potted last season. Not coincidentally, the Leafs as a whole came into Wednesday on 95-point pace, on track for their worst season in three years.

But for all the news that required a deadpan reaction, Hyman brought confirmation of a more upbeat headline. Six months and 15 days since he was sedated on an operating table, it’s expected he’ll make his season debut against the streaking Islanders in Long Island on Wednesday.

“I have a good mindset about what I need to do out there, and not try to do too much,” Hyman said. “I’m just going to go out there and play my game like I’ve played since I got here.”

With Marner out, Hyman is expected to play on a line centred by Tavares and co-flanked by Kasperi Kapanen. It’s also hoped he’ll bring new-found energy to a struggling penalty kill that ranked 23rd in the league heading into Tuesday’s slate of games. But the Leafs were being realistic about their expectations. Hopping aboard a proverbial moving train rarely proves easy, even if Hyman has been practising with the team for weeks.

Veteran defenceman Jake Muzzin said the key to a successful comeback from injury is as much mental as physical.

“Yeah, you can be cleared physically. But if you’re hesitant about the injury or second-guessing yourself, then you’re not playing up to your ability,” Muzzin said. “I think (Hyman) is there. It sounds like he’s there. It’s exciting for our team. We lost Mitchy. We get one back. It’s the way hockey goes … You have to get wins when guys are out.”

Hyman, for his part, said he was made to wait to return to the lineup until he was “over-ready.” Coming back early from an operation as serious as this would be unwise, indeed.

“I’m just happy I don’t play basketball. Otherwise I’d be out a whole lot longer,” Hyman said last month, citing reports that Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson is expected to be out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in the NBA Finals against Toronto.

Hyman said that while he’s able to skate and turn and brace on his surgically repaired joint, he’s not yet relishing the idea of max-effort jumping. So don’t expect airborne collisions into the corner boards when he scores his first goal of the season.

“Jumping, creating force upwards, it puts more force on your knees,” Hyman said. “That’s why you always see basketball players with ice packs on their knees.”

What’s the reasonable expectation for his contribution for the remaining 63 games of the regular season? A 2015 academic study of 47 NHL players who’d undergone ACL surgery between 2006 and 2010 saw post-injury point totals drop an average of about 26% in the first season post-operation. Some 20% of those players eventually required additional surgery. And career lengths, on average, were diminished considerably in ACL patients compared to a control group that didn’t have the surgery. But Hyman, if he’s aware of those sobering stats, points to a more inspiring story. It was only a handful of years ago that NFL running back Adrian Peterson was named league MVP about nine months removed from ACL surgery. At age 34, Peterson is still playing.

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“It’s a crazy surgery. I don’t know how a normal person would do it, let alone an athlete (with easy access to expert medical staff),” Hyman said last month. “The cool thing about the ACL is that the actual joint feels really, really strong. People say it’s almost stronger than the (non-repaired) one, just because it’s tighter.”

Speaking Tuesday before the Leafs hopped a plane for New York, Hyman smiled and pronounced himself “excited to go,” even if he’s skating into a new unknown.
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