Maple Leafs know challenge of containing Oilers' 'Shaq' Hyman

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Protect the paint.

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The basketball term will apply on Saturday night when the player the Toronto Marlies used to call Shaq Hyman hits his home town on the cusp of reaching a rather significant milestone.

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That would be forward Zach Hyman, who arrives at Scotiabank Arena with 48 goals and in a starring role for the Edmonton Oilers.

A two-goal game against the Maple Leafs, the team that traded for Hyman’s rights back in 2015 and signed him to a two-year deal that started his path to being one of the hardest-working players in the National Hockey League, would get Hyman to 50.

Given his hockey background, it would be fitting for Hyman to score his 50th in Toronto.

“It would be pretty special,” Hyman said after the morning skate on Saturday. “I don’t think many people thought I would have the opportunity to do it here … everybody is making a big deal of it, but I don’t think I’ve won here yet (as an Oiler), so that’s the focus.

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“You can never really choose when you score. You go the areas and make plays and try to do your part.”

Leafs winger William Nylander, as happy as he is that Hyman is so close to 50, would rather it not happen not on Saturday.

“It will be fun to play against him tonight … He’s two from 50, so not tonight,” Nylander said before breaking into laughter.

As Hyman goes about his business, the Leafs continue to try to find a long-term fit on the left side on their top line alongside Auston Matthews. 

On Saturday, Tyler Bertuzzi may or may not play. He will be a game-time decision after he missed practice on Friday because he was sick, something he played through in the Leafs’ win in Washington on Wednesday.

We saw how effective Hyman was at the net and around the crease during his six seasons with the Leafs before he departed in free agency for Edmonton in 2021. Yet Hyman, now 31, never scored more than 21 goals in a season with the Leafs.

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Playing with Connor McDavid has been a major factor in Hyman’s increased production — he had 27 goals in his first year with Edmonton and 36 last season — thought it has gone to a completely different level in 2023-24.

“When I was (coaching) the Marlies, we called him Shaq Hyman, because he got to the paint more and better than anybody,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “And now he is playing with the guy that gets the puck to the paint and tilts the ice more than anybody maybe in the history of the game. 

“It’s a good fit, and he works to get to the right places and he’s getting rewarded for it.”

Hyman said it was A.J. MacLean, then an assistant coach with the Marlies, who came up with the nickname during the 2015-16 season, a nod to NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. 

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It will fall on the Leafs’ defence-by-committee to keep Hyman, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in check.

With TJ Brodie sitting again and with Ilya Lyubushkin not ready to play after he got through an illness, we’re going to get another look at the pairing of Morgan Rielly and Jake McCabe.

“We’ve been hesitant to put them together throughout the season because there’s a lot of similarities in their game,” Keefe said. “Morgan is much more offensive and they both skate really well. Their skating and their feet take them to different spots on the ice that in my mind, counter what each of them do, which is why I’ve never really seen them as much of a candidates to be good pair.

“They have to be really smart with how they play. There’s good rewards that come with (being offensive), but when it goes bad, it can go real bad. They’ve got to be really locked in on how they move and how they read off of one another.”

Ilya Samsonov projects to be the Leafs’ starter in net as Toronto looks to avenge a 4-2 loss in Edmonton on Jan. 16.

The Leafs have 14 games left in the regular season. Keefe said the plan is to split the remaining starts between Samsonov and Joseph Woll fairly equally.

“They will play about the same, whether it’s alternating, or two here, two there,” Keefe said. “As I’ve tried to map it out, I don’t see it going any differently than that.”

Woll would get the start on Sunday in Carolina against the Hurricanes as the Leafs complete a busy weekend.

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