TORONTO — Zach Hyman has played alongside elite centers his entire NHL career. So when it became clear the forward would be leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent, the chance to join the Edmonton Oilers and play alongside either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl was an opportunity to be seized.
“I really wanted to go to a team that had a chance to win,” Hyman said last week at the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour in Toronto, “and I saw Edmonton as a parallel to Toronto in the sense that it was a young group of elite players with a few disappointing finishes, so a really hungry group that wants to win.”
Consider McDavid equally excited by the chance to play with Hyman, who scored 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 43 games last season and one goal in seven Stanley Cup Playoff games.
“He’s a massive addition for us,” McDavid said. “He’s a true pro, a leader and does all the right things. Just how hard he works, he wins battles, gets pucks off the wall. I think those are all things that you want in any linemate. He’s got a lot more skill than people give him credit for.”
Hyman, who signed a seven-year contract with the Oilers on July 28 after six seasons with the Maple Leafs, was not only interested in joining Edmonton because of McDavid and Draisaitl. The 29-year-old said he feels the window is open for championship contention.
“To win a Stanley Cup (is my goal),” Hyman said. “The players that are there, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to Edmonton and be a part of a team that had elite, elite talent and help them put it all together. No different than when I was in Toronto, the expectation was to win and the expectation in Edmonton will be to win.”
The Oilers (35-19-2) finished second in the Scotia North Division last season but were swept by the Winnipeg Jets in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round.
Leaving the Maple Leafs was an emotional decision for Hyman. Not only did he begin his NHL career with Toronto and flourish, but he grew up in the city, cheering for the team. He made no secret of how much he loved being a Maple Leaf.
“I was really proud to wear the jersey,” Hyman said. “I knew how much it meant to not just me but to the fans and every kid. I know how much the Leafs mean to Toronto. I never took it for granted when I wore that jersey.”
In an effort to turn the page, Hyman relocated to Gary Roberts’ training facility north of Toronto, where he was able to become familiar with some of his new Oilers teammates, rather than train during the offseason at the Maple Leafs practice facility as he had in the past.
“I ended up training with Gary Roberts who has (Oilers teammates) McDavid, (defenseman) Darnell Nurse, (forward) Warren Foegele and (center) Devin Shore,” Hyman said, “so it felt like a mini-Oiler camp with the Oiler uniform. It started to feel more normal every day.”
Whether he begins the season on a line with McDavid or Draisaitl, Hyman said, is not yet set in stone. But he has shown an ability to complement elite centers.
In 2016-17, Hyman played alongside Auston Matthews when he scored 40 goals in his rookie season. In 2018-19, he was paired with John Tavares, who scored 47 goals in his first season with the Maple Leafs. The past two seasons, Hyman was back with Matthews when he scored 47 goals in 70 games and 41 goals in 52 games last season to win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the top goal-scorer in the NHL.
After getting familiar with Hyman throughout the summer, Nurse said he is exactly what the Oilers needed.
“He brings a work ethic that you can never have too much of on a team and really, it’s infectious,” Nurse said. “Just having skated with him this summer, he brings a high compete level in July. So in April, when things heat up, May and June, the team is in a better position with the addition of Zach, what he brings to the table and how he is going to push each and every guy. That push is going to lead to great things for us as a team.”