Leafs’ Hyman embraces puck pursuit of excellence

Leafs’ Hyman embraces puck pursuit of excellence
The body of work he contributes to the team and the way he makes players around him better is an important element to the Maple Leafs ’ success. And while he remains focused on the forechecking and cycling he does best, Hyman still has unfinished work on his plate — improving the chemistry with linemates John Tavares and Mitch Marner.

“I still think (our line chemistry) can be a lot better, but you always want to feel that way, keep pushing and finding new ways to get better,” Tavares said as the Leafs practised Thursday in preparation for Friday night’s Hall of Fame Game against the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Arena.

“Be tough to play against, on the cycle, down low, in front of the net … be better at reading each other’s body language … and I’m working on that with (Hyman) as well.”

One would think chemistry should come easy for the trio. Tavares and Marner are two of the finest playmakers and puckhandlers in the league, while Hyman could teach a class about puck retrieval and forechecking. Still, the line remains a work in progress.

Tavares is the least familiar with the Leafs’ style of play and that of his two linemates. Marner, for all his brilliance this season, is being asked to bring more of the “heavy” play to the line. In other words, be more like Hyman.

“I talked to (Marner) about that this morning,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said about improving his puck possession. “They’re our heaviest line, they spend more time in the offensive zone and you just want them to keep on doing that.”

For Marner, it may be one of the toughest things he will have to tailor into his game. Like Tavares, he entered the NHL as one of junior hockey’s top offensive players and was able to maintain that level. Unlike Hyman, he was never told to focus on the 200-foot game, perfect his penalty-killing skills, block shots and chase down opposing defencemen.

Marner has done an admirable job while being assigned regular duty on the penalty kill. He’s also gained roughly 10 pounds through sheer determination in the gym, and is a much more well-rounded player than at any other time in his pro career.

That’s key — and a reflection of the example Hyman has set — since Babcock expects everyone to play a heavy style, regardless of talent level.

“Zach, when he gets in on the forecheck, he makes it hard on the opposition (defencemen),” Marner said. “He holds up a lot of guys and in the D-zone he is always blocking shots and gets in the lanes. He’s a great penalty killer … it’s pretty nice to have him on our line and on our team.”

Hyman, a scoring star in junior who became a more complete player under legendary Michigan Wolverines coach Red Berenson, is taken aback when it’s mentioned that he is one of the shining examples of what it takes to be successful in the NHL. He also knows it takes more than scoring goals.

“I’ve played long enough in the league to know (the puck) goes in sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t,” Hyman said. “I don’t get too caught up in how many goals I score. When you get to the NHL, there’s only so many players here who score a point a game, or 0.8 points a game, or something like that. So you have to find a role, find a way to help your team win.

“When I was at Michigan, I learned the penalty kill and Red taught me about playing well at both ends of the ice. I started on the fourth line at Michigan and I ended up on the first line. I played with all kinds of superstar players, and I learned how to play with them … and to find a way to be successful at this (NHL) level.”
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