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Zach Hyman’s road not taken: How the Panthers let the Oilers star slip away

Edmonton Oilers left wing Zach Hyman, left, scores past Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger during the first period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Western Conference finals on Sunday in Edmonton, Alberta.  (Tribune News Service)
By Chris Johnston The Athletic

SUNRISE, Fla. – Before Zach Hyman became the one that got away in Toronto, he was the prospect who slipped through the cracks in South Florida.

In fact, as the Edmonton Oilers scoring hero prepared for the Stanley Cup Final, he did so with nothing but fond memories of the only team left standing between him and a life-long dream realized.

The Florida Panthers sweater Hyman received as he walked toward the draft stage at Staples Center in 2010 still hangs in his childhood bedroom. It serves as a lasting memory of the first NHL validation he received after being picked in the fifth round out of the Ontario Junior Hockey League – 122 selections behind where Edmonton took Taylor Hall that year.

As for the Panthers?

Well, the only remaining souvenir they have from Hyman’s time in the organization is a signed copy of “Hockey Hero,” the children’s book he authored as a teenager. He gifted that to former Panthers general manager Dale Tallon before deciding that he’d rather exercise his right to become an NCAA free agent in the summer of 2015 than sign an entry-level contract in Florida.

It was a decision that caught management completely off guard.

“We liked the kid,” Tallon told The Athletic on Friday. “He had a children’s book that he signed and autographed with a really nice message. It was kind of, I wouldn’t call it shocking, but we were disappointed that we couldn’t get it done.”

To see Hyman here now, leading all playoff scorers with 14 goals entering Saturday’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, there’s no reason to second-guess his decision.

Rather than losing him for nothing, the Panthers wound up trading his rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs for prospect Greg McKegg in June 2015, and that gave Hyman the chance to establish himself as a bona fide NHLer over six years with his hometown team.

He then jumped at the opportunity to ride shotgun with Connor McDavid in Edmonton three summers ago by signing a $38.5 million, seven-year contract as an unrestricted free agent.

His path from being a lightly regarded prospect to a front-line scorer on a championship contender has been anything but conventional, which explains in part why he never formally became a Panther.

Hyman attended four summer development camps with the organization while still attending the University of Michigan but was never extended an opportunity to leave school early to sign an NHL contract in Florida.

When he then came through with 54 points in 37 games during his senior year, Hyman suddenly found himself with leverage because he’d started to garner a lot of attention and was eligible to become an NCAA free agent on Aug. 15 at age 23 if he didn’t sign with the Panthers.

“I never really had the opportunity to play for them,” he said. “When I was coming out of college, they were loaded with prospects and I took advantage of (that clause in the collective bargaining agreement). They didn’t want to sign me before that, and I wasn’t ready to be signed after Year 2 or 3 at Michigan. I needed the full four years to develop.”

As Tallon remembers it, the Panthers did everything they could to convince Hyman it was the right move when Michigan’s season ended on March 21 with a loss in the Big Ten Tournament.

Florida only had 10 regular-season games remaining at the time, and the team was in the middle of a playoff race. The Hyman camp made it known that he wanted to play in the NHL immediately if he signed, and signing would have burned a year off his entry-level deal.

“We were OK with it – we’d done that in the past – but the problem is we hadn’t clinched a playoff spot,” Tallon said. “I didn’t think it was fair to put a new kid into the lineup when the team was still fighting.”

The Panthers wound up missing the playoffs that season by seven points. They’ve since seen Hyman develop into a net-driving, 54-goal scorer who does the dirty work alongside McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – a line Florida will need to neutralize to win this Stanley Cup.

The fact that Hyman could, in an alternate universe, be on the other side of the championship battle is more of a trivia question inside Amerant Bank Arena than a front-of-mind conversation. Tallon has since moved on to a scouting role with the Vancouver Canucks, and the only Panthers players still around from that era weren’t able to even offer an anecdote on meeting Hyman early in their pro careers.

“We might have had a development camp or two, but I don’t remember,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It was a long time ago.”

“I think I was at a few development camps, for sure, when he was here,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “But I was so young and I didn’t really speak English and that kind of stuff. But I do remember him from here.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see now that a number of NHL organizations erred by not believing in his character and betting on the fact that his exceptional work ethic would eventually yield huge dividends.

Those things were there all along.

“Knowing Zach, the sky’s the limit for him,” said Oilers winger Connor Brown, who played with Hyman as a member of the AHL Marlies and Maple Leafs. “He’s a 50-goal scorer now, but 10 years down the road I can’t wait to see what he’s doing because of the type of person he is. Incredibly motivated. Incredibly humble. Incredibly disciplined. Learns from his mistakes. Just completely engulfed in the process of making himself a better person and player.”

The Panthers once saw that, too, Tallon said.

They were taken with how smart their fifth-round draft pick was both on and off the ice and projected that he’d have a solid NHL career as a two-way forward. The biggest mistake they made was not moving heaven and earth to get his signature on a contract when they had the chance.

“All signs were that he wanted to sign with us, so we weren’t panicked at all,” said Tallon. “It wasn’t because we didn’t want him. That’s a fact. But that’s just the way it goes.”