Zach Hyman opened the scoring midway through the first period of a 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. A skilled rush originating in the Leafs zone, he stepped into an abandoned lane to exploit the situation and snap his fourth goal in the last six games, coinciding with being partnered with Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall.
— Hockey Night in Canada (@hockeynight) March 10, 2021
The Leafs line contains a little of everything, comprising an effective and responsible forward unit with touch and creativity to provide the odd timely goal. Put together over the last six or seven games regularly, the trio have emerged as the potential ‘third line’ that eats up hard minutes against difficult match ups.
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In today’s NHL, there ‘third lines’ don’t really exist, that’s an old school roster construct that segregated top offensive players into two viable scoring units, with a third line comprised of checkers to shut down the competition. But just like the fourth line, that until recently contained ‘enforcers’, the third line has blended into the second line with interchangeable parts.
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Toronto eschewed this concept of using enforcers, opting to add skilled players to their fourth line –homegrown, or NHL reclamation projects. Jason Spezza fills that fourth line center role exceptionally well, and forcing teams to contend with skilled units in unfavorable matchups.
Today’s forward roster construct is different. Forward pairs have emerged as foundational with different players completing lines. There’s a distinction between first line players, where the second and third lines contain transposable players capable of moving up and down the roster due to injury, or coach’s favor, with roster decisions assessed on a game by game and sometimes shift by shift basis.
Shaking up second and third lines is another arrow in the coach’s quiver, foiling opposing coach’s line matchups, but breaking up a first line would require injury, or severely depressed offensive production. Even as a shakeup, it’s the complimentary third that rotates out.
All three players comprising the Leafs third line are complimentary in nature, sometimes described as ‘catalysts’, but I think that they are exceptional support players. They compliment other linemates skill and ability, with a high revving engine that drives results.
Every Stanley Cup contender has their version of the Hyman, Engvall and Mikheyev line. The Tampa Bay Lightning shored up their middle forwards by adding Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in 2019-20, and getting elevated performance from the likes of Anthony Cirelli.
In short, this third line (sometimes referred to the ‘ZIP’ – Zach/Ilya/Pierre – or ‘HEM’ (Hyman/Engvall/Mikheyev – line) is emerging as the go-to shut down trio necessary to grind through the playoffs slog. It’s a modern blueprint of an old world concept. A powerful team using their offensive skills and matching power for power, negates the other team’s ability to use their best assets by forcing them to play defense. Have the puck, no need for defense.
Leafs stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner lead the way offensively, and John Tavares and much-maligned William Nylander provide support scoring. Toronto can run those two pairings with a revolving third. Joe Thornton has the first line spot on lockdown (that was Hyman’s at one point) and Alex Kerfoot with Nylander and Tavares – still seeming like a placeholder for the injured Wayne Simmonds and questioning where Kerfoot fits in the roster.
And still, if Thornton falters or is unable to keep the pace of playoff hockey, how is he replaced? Will coach Keefe use Hyman in that spot, alongside regular duty with the ZIP line? Or would he dissolve it to accommodate? There are handcuffs in rosters that coaches have to work through consistently.
Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Jets, the ‘ZIP’ line had played almost the same amount as the Nylander, Tavares, Kerfoot line, and comparable to these other lines across the NHL. There are two tables separating offensive and defensive production at 5v5 (no special teams).
Offensively, the line ranks up against notables like Panarin-Strome-Kakko and Pearson-Horvat-Virtanen, along with the Ryan-Fabbri-Mantha units could be considered the most adept at offensive scoring chance generation.
Darker colors are stronger at the extremes, with red accounting for lowest values, white being neutral and blue the highest values.
Desired color is blue for offensive metrics – the darker the better. For goals against, red is desired. White-ish shades show middling or neutrality in the categories – consider it an average among the results.
Data is sourced by www.moneypuck.com.
The ZIP line has been neutral in expected goals and goals scored – 2.6 expected, with three (3) goals, firing most from low danger areas by a significant margin. Their low danger shots are still considered average in comparison to the other NHL lines. They tip the scales for medium and high danger shots, and neutral expected goals (xGF) by danger zone. They are getting more zone time and generating shots from seemingly better spots on the ice. This bodes well for when the line has the puck and should their acumen and zeal for retrievals without it intensify, they can be a dangerous line come playoff time.
Defensively the unit is expected to play heavy minutes against the competition’s best lines. They have yet to be scored on despite expected goals against of 1.99 – some good goaltending propping up their efforts as well. More red color is desired here.
The 57% expected goals percentage is actually third best on the Leafs (xG%) behind Matthews, Thornton and Marner, and Matthews, Hyman and Marner.
Hyman’s value as a support player are now augmented by bettering point totals. A shortened season stalled him at 21 goals in 2019-20. He’s scored eight this season and the 28-year old is showing his versatility and capability of producing offensively, not just as a shut down player. He will be a sought out piece hitting unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2020-21 season. He’s definitely going to get more than the $2.25 million salary this season. The question is whether Toronto can balance their cap gymnastics to get him resigned.
Hyman is the responsible, structural forward, with a willingness to get to hard areas without the puck.
His linemates aren’t very different, with the exception of skill and skating level that Hyman has worked to attain. Ilya Mikheyev has exceptional wheels, a killer first two step acceleration and separation gears with quick hands. His instincts are keen and he’s more than capable of being the F1, F2 or F3 on any occasion and smart enough to understand his own limitations. He’s capable of providing support scoring and compliments a forward pairing similarly to Hyman. When the Nylander/Tavares pair was struggling at 5v5, it was Mikheyev that was inserted for a spark.
Pierre Engvall struggled to get into the lineup early in the season, but has emerged a must dress on this unit and is stealthily skilled, subtle yet paired with keen sense he, too, has elements of support in his game.
All three players can induce physical play, as eagerly and adeptly as the skilled plays they are able to produce.
This line has the potential to successfully shut down opposing best lines. If they succeed, Toronto will be that much more difficult to play against.