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NHL

Unsung Heroes of the 2020 NHL Playoffs: Toronto Maple Leafs

In just over a week’s time, the puck will drop on the 2020 playoffs amidst a four-and-a-half month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Toronto Maple Leafs are slated to lock horns with the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets. We all know that the Leafs are top-heavy with talent with the likes of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, and Mitch Marner leading the charge.

The Leafs also have a few players on their roster who typically fly under the radar and have a real opportunity to become unsung heroes this summer. If you look at the course of NHL history, it’s hard to win the Stanley Cup without key contributions from unexpected sources. So just who are some of Toronto’s unsung heroes as we enter play? Let’s read on and find out.

Zach Hyman, Left-Wing

Hyman starts us off as one of the most underappreciated wingers in the National Hockey League. A staple in Toronto’s top-six for the past four seasons, Hyman provides tremendous value to the high-flying Leafs. During his tenure in Toronto, Former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock referred to him as “one of the best forecheckers in hockey”. The funny thing is, he’s not too far off in his assessment. 

Since entering the league, the former fifth-round pick has had to “scratch and claw” his way to a roster spot. He’s done this through hard work, versatility, being a “team-first” player, and playing the game the right way. If you talk to die-hard Leaf fans, this is water under the bridge because they see what Hyman does game in and game out. However, across the NHL landscape, the overall recognition for Hyman just isn’t as prevalent as it should be. This season saw the rugged winger score and impressive 21 goals and 37 points in just 51 games played due to off-season surgery and subsequent recovery time. Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say? 

Hyman has been an unsung hero from the moment he stepped foot on an NHL rink. He’s a tremendous leader and embodies what it means to play in a hockey-crazed city like Toronto. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be anything of the kind when the puck drops for the Leafs on August 2nd. 

Ilya Mikheyev, Right-Wing

Next up is Russian-born winger, Mikheyev. Since the start of training camp 2.0. Mikheyev has been nothing short of spectacular for the Maple Leafs. Yes, it’s only practice/scrimmage games, but the 6’3, 195-pound winger has been turning heads with his energy, speed, passion for the game, and ability to finish plays. His teammates have been raving at what they’ve seen from the rejuvenated youngster. 

This season, while playing on a one-year, $925,000 contract, Mikheyev featured in only 39 regular-season games. In that short period of time, he managed to score eight goals to go along with 15 assists and 23 points while playing 15:35 per game. During the team’s practice lines and line rushes at camp, Mikheyev has appeared primarily on the second unit with Tavares at center. The one-two combination of Tavares and Mikheyev along with Nylander or Marner spells trouble for the opposition.  

Mikheyev who’s set to become a free agent at season’s end will be (extra) motivated to perform for the Leafs this summer. In addition, he’ll be raring to go after such a lengthy layoff due to injury (and the COVID-19 stoppage). If my vote counts for anything, I’d be banking on a pretty good postseason run for the 25-year-old Russian sensation.

Tyson Barrie, Defenseman

Barrie rounds out our list as a potential unsung hero for the Maple Leafs this summer. Barrie, who’s had a challenging adjustment to life in Toronto, can silence a lot of critics with a strong postseason for the blue and white. Although his actual statistical production this season is respectable (5 goals, 34 assists, 39 points), Barrie himself knows that he can be a lot better. 

As training camp began, Maple leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe essentially gave the keys to Barrie to “quarterback” Toronto’s high-octane power-play. As the lone defenseman on Toronto’s top power-play unit, Barrie has the vision, puck skills, passing ability, and talent to facilitate what could be a lethal tool against the Blue Jackets. Alongside the likes of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares, Barrie will have every opportunity to succeed with the man advantage.

At season’s end, Barrie is slated to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) as one of the biggest blue-liners on the market. A big postseason from the Victoria, British Columbia native would go a long way in contract negotiations after a subpar season. Whether or not Barrie continues his playing days in Toronto or elsewhere, he’ll want to showcase his talents and reinforce his play to prospective clubs. What better way of doing so than on the biggest stage the NHL playoffs?

Honorable Mentions: D Justin Holl, C Jason Spezza

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