Stanley Cup Final notebook: Oilers' Zach Hyman is proving to be one of the best free agent signings

Sat, Jun 22, 2024
NHL News (AP)

Stanley Cup Final notebook: Oilers' Zach Hyman is proving to be one of the best free agent signings

Zach Hyman is proving the Edmonton Oilers right for committing to him long term.

Hyman has scored a playoff-best 16 goals on their run to the Stanley Cup Final, the latest of which helped send the series to a deciding Game 7 against the Florida Panthers on Monday night. His contributions are a big reason they have even gotten to this point, and Hyman is now making a case to be considered among the best free agent signings since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005.

The Oilers signed Hyman in the summer of 2021 to a seven-year contract worth $38.5 million, a $5.5 million annual salary cap hit that is a bargain based on his production since joining Edmonton. He set a career high in scoring his first season, followed it up with 83 points the next and 54 goals this year.

Hyman at the time was 29 and was coming off seasons with moderate production as a secondary piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. But Edmonton general manager Ken Holland's son Brad worked for the Leafs, so he got a front row seat to what Hyman could do.

The Oilers did not necessarily expect him to be a 50-goal scorer, maybe 25, but they knew they needed a player like Hyman to complement Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the core.

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"We liked the way Zach played: He went to the blue paint, he forechecked, he cycled," Holland said. "Cycle, go to the blue paint, hang on to pucks, bring character and leadership."

Hyman with his Game 6 goal Friday night showed not only that character but hustle and speed, winning the race to the loose puck and scoring to set off a wild celebration in the crowd.

"I was just in the moment," Hyman said. "It didn't feel so long in the moment. Trying to race to the puck, and I didn't have much time when I got it. I was at the hash marks. I obviously settled it and made a move and beat him."

The all-time record for goals in a single post-season is held by Reggie Leach, who scored 19 goals in 16 games during the 1976 playoffs with the Philadelphia Flyers. He was the playoff MVP that season.

Only eight players - Mike Bossy did it three times - have scored more goals in a single postseason than Hyman, who has one more opportunity to add to that total and arguably cement himself as the best player to sign as an unrestricted free agent over the past two decades.

Boston's Zdeno Chara has the best case right now because he captained the Bruins to the Cup in 2011 after signing with them in '06.

No matter how this final ends, Hyman has made the Oilers' investment well worth it.

"What he's doing this year, no one could have predicted it," teammate Mattias Janmark said. "He just never stops. He's a unit out there. He does so much for us."

Panthers changes?

Florida coach Paul Maurice has been fiddling with his fourth-line wingers throughout the playoffs, mixing and matching Ryan Lomberg, Nick Cousins, Steven Lorentz and Kyle Okposo. He has those options after GM Bill Zito acquired Okposo and 2019 Cup champion Vladimir Tarasenko at the trade deadline.

All four have played in the final with center Kevin Stenlund the one constant. Maurice inserted Cousins in Game 6 for some fresh legs and a different look.

"I think there's a chemistry of Lomberg, Stenlund and Cousins because they've played together so much this year," Maurice said.

After losing three in a row, Maurice's adjustments from the fourth line and beyond could play a crucial role in the chances of the Panthers avoiding a historic collapse.

Scoring first

The Panthers scored the first goal in Game 1 when Sergei Bobrovsky got a shutout and again in Game 3 when they went up 3-0 in the series. They are 9-2 in the playoffs when scoring first.

The Oilers scored first in their Game 2 loss, then in Games 4, 5 and 6 to even the series. Obviously, every team wants to get the first goal of any game, but Edmonton coach Kris Knoblauch said playing with the lead "allows you to play your game."

"Any time you score first, it calms a lot of jitters," Knoblauch said Sunday on a video call with reporters. "It also forces the opposition to open things up a little bit more and maybe not play with as much defensive structure as they would like just because they're trying to get back in the game and forcing to score that next goal, so, it kind of alleviates a little bit of pressure on your team."

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

STEPHEN WHYNO DC-based hockey writer covering NHL, Capitals and Commanders twitter mailto "
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