Maple Leafs at crossroads as Zach Hyman nears exit

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This one hurts, even if the impending split has been inevitable for some time now.

Kyle Dubas may be able to find players with attributes that match what Zach Hyman brought to the Toronto Maple Leafs these last six seasons, but he won’t be able to find another Hyman.

You simply don’t replace the unique combination of ability, effort, institutional knowledge and social capital that Hyman built up since arriving in a June 2015 trade with Florida — the first Dubas orchestrated as an NHL general manager during the brief period where he held the interim title between Dave Nonis and Lou Lamoriello.

Hyman marinated with other top organizational prospects in the American Hockey League. He made his NHL debut on the giddy night of Feb. 29, 2016 when the Leafs rewarded their fans during the rebuild by summoning William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Nikita Soshnikov
all at the same time.

And over the intervening years he became one of their most trusted skaters, tasked with doing the dirty work alongside more skilled linemates while consistently setting a standard behind the scenes.

“He’s been an excellent player for us for his entire career here,” Dubas said Thursday, all-but referring to Hyman’s time with the Leafs in the past tense. “I think everyone loves him as a player and a person. We have certainly limits that we can go to [in contract negotiations] and we’ve tried to extend ourselves as best we can knowing that there would be a strong market for him.”

The Leafs are believed to have extended the pending unrestricted free agent a max term eight-year offer carrying an annual value a little over $4 million. But that’s still almost a million less per season than Hyman is being offered by the Edmonton Oilers, assuming a sign-and-trade with Toronto can be worked out to facilitate an eight-year deal.

Should that fall through, a seven-year contract in Edmonton carrying Hyman’s signature is expected to land in the neighbourhood of $5.5 million annually.

That’s why Dubas recently granted Hyman’s agent, Todd Reynolds, the freedom to speak to other teams before free agency officially opens on July 28. It could potentially land the Leafs an asset should a sign-and-trade scenario emerge, but it also allows both sides to start properly planning for an amicable end to their union.

As of early Thursday afternoon, Dubas said that he hadn’t heard from Reynolds about needing to negotiate anything with the Oilers. Hyman travelled to Edmonton on Wednesday to tour the team’s facilities — even requesting to work out in the gym, a testament to his don’t-miss-a-day approach — and all signs pointed to the Oilers emerging as the leading candidate for his services.

Toronto is willing to facilitate a sign-and-trade before the deadline to do so expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

“We’re open to anything that can help to make our team better,” said Dubas. “If there’s fair value to be had there then we’ll certainly explore it.”

Ideally, he’d be calling a press conference instead to announce a new contract for the 29-year-old winger. That would almost certainly be the outcome if the NHL wasn’t governed by a hard cap system that requires tough decisions by teams carrying an outsized amount of established talent.

The middle class is aggressively worn away under these rules. Just look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, already down two-thirds of their identity line two weeks after lifting the Stanley Cup, and facing even more subtractions.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this system is designed to place guardrails around how much players can earn during the most productive years of their career as well. Hyman delivered tremendous value while earning $2.25 million annually over the last four seasons — increasing his points-per-game total each year while playing more than 60 per cent of his five-on-five minutes with Auston Matthews.

This is the first chance he’s had to test the free market and it stands as his best chance to be paid commensurate with his production.

Should he wind up signing a seven- or eight-year contract, as expected, pundits will trip over themselves to point out the inherent risks. His age and a couple recent knee injuries make it unlikely that he’ll be able to perform up to its value right until the end.

However, if you’re going to gamble on someone you want to gamble on a player like Hyman — a guy who scratched and clawed his way from the Ontario Junior Hockey League to four seasons at the University of Michigan to an NHL contract that could touch $40 million.

On a day where Dubas defiantly defended his core, saying “I believe in this group and I believe that they are going to get it done and I believe that they’re going to win,” you couldn’t help but wonder how much more challenging it will be for them to get over the hump without Hyman.

You could already sense the hole forming even before he’d officially moved on.

“Zach has shown night in and night out that he’s going to give his very best to the Toronto Maple Leafs and we certainly have valued that over the years,” said Dubas. “That’s why we’ve tried to find a solution here, but Zach has earned every dollar that he’s going to get in free agency.

“He’s done it certainly not the easy way as well.”

And now the job for everyone else gets just that much tougher.

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