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Most analysts would be hard pressed to find positives in Barrett Hayton’s disjointed development path. Between injuries, COVID-19 and some questionable roster decisions that may not have maximized his growth, Hayton has experienced more than his share of obstacles.
As athletes must do to keep pressing forward, however, Hayton has focused on the opportunities that those setbacks have presented, rather than the roadblocks.
When he was sidelined for 6½ weeks last season due to hand surgery, he reassessed his training approach, lost some weight and came back to register eight goals and 18 points in his final 34 games. He had two goals and six points in 26 games before the injury.
“This summer, I was looking at some numbers from throughout the year, and then also at what I was feeling on the ice,” Hayton said Tuesday. “I came into the latter half of last season a bit lighter after the time off. I tweaked some things then and I felt good. I felt efficient on the ice so that was a big part of my summer was getting lighter, more agile, quicker, more explosive.”
Hayton worked with well known trainer Andy O’Brien, who counts a litany of NHL stars under his tutelage, including Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon. When Hayton reported for training camp, he was visibly leaner and about 10 pounds lighter at around 195 pounds. When he took the ice for camp and preseason, it paid dividends. He led the Coyotes with six points (two goals) in five preseason games. His game just popped.
“Bigger, stronger, faster was always a big goal of mine when I was younger,” Hayton said. “I always grinded in the offseason. I’m a competitive person so you get competitive in the gym with other guys. That was just always kind of the way I saw things, but as you get older you kind of get a sense of what works best for yourself. When you’re 15, 16, 17, it’s hard to tell because you’re still developing so much and building into your frame and getting a sense of it. I think the big thing was having more experience in the NHL and understanding the game and understanding what’s best for me.”
Now that he knows, the question on everyone’s lips is this: Is it time for a Barrett Hayton breakout season? To coach André Tourigny, it all depends on your definition of breakout.
“He’s a really good pro,” Tourigny said. “He’s a guy who studies the game to get better every day. The guy is really passionate. I look at him right now and he’s looking super thin, he’s looking really, really sharp so I’m looking forward to seeing him on the ice.
“But at the same time, last year he was 21 years old so I assume he’s not 27 this year. It’s one step at a time. It will be a challenge again this year playing in a really tough conference. I don’t expect Hayts to be a point-per-game guy this year. I just expect him to make a step in the right direction and keep establishing his game and being a reliable player.”
Hayton, 22, proved that he could handle the defensive side of the game and play away from the puck early last season when he regularly faced the top matchups in the league. When he came back from injury, however, Tourigny dropped him to the No. 3 center slot and he flourished at both ends.
That’s where Hayton will start the season between wings Lawson Crouse and Christian Fischer. Whether he climbs the pecking order past veterans Nick Bjugstad and Travis Boyd is entirely up to him.
“Barrett is a key player for us, a center whom I trust in every situation,” Tourigny said. “We want to be smart about how we use him, but you can see that his game has improved and I expect that to continue to be the case.”
Hayton is happy to be centering two mainstays on the Coyotes roster, and he sees Crouse’s breakout season last year as an example to follow. All the same, he relishes the idea of facing the likes of Crosby, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid in his nightly matchups.
“Those guys are the best players in the world so obviously you have to be very aware when you’re on the ice with them. Being above those guys is important because if you give them an inch they can make things happen,” Hayton said. “That’s a side of my game I take a lot of pride in. As my game grows, I want to be able to have those matchups and still generate offense. That’s the player I strive to be; bring both sides of my game together.”
Hayton will likely get those chances at some point this season on a Coyotes center depth chart that currently lacks a true, top-six center. For the first time in his career, he believes he has the combination of continuity, opportunity and experience to exploit it.
“I think it’s just about taking another step,” he said. “I was able to take a step starting last season and then that step offensively in the latter half so I just want to take another step this year. I think it’s something that with the experience I gained last year and the work I put in the summer and all that I did to set myself, I can take a big step. That’s what progress is for me; making a bigger impact on the game, continuing to generate more offense and just taking on a bigger role on this team.”
Top photo of Barrett Hayton via Getty Images