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Neutral Zone: Hoping for a better fate for Barrett Hayton

Craig Morgan Avatar
February 20, 2022

Since suffering a Grade 1 shoulder separation at the World Junior Championship in Czechia in January 2020, Coyotes center Barrett Hayton has played 89 professional hockey games in the past 25 months, split between the NHL (46), AHL (35) and the Finnish Liiga (eight). He has dealt with multiple injuries, a premature elevation to the NHL, COVID-19, demotions to the AHL, healthy scratches and a whole lot of frustration.

Somehow, Hayton, 21, keeps showing up to media interviews and voicing a precocious perspective. 

“Nobody’s path is perfect; no one’s is easy.” said Hayton, who returned to the lineup on Saturday for the first time since Jan. 6. “If you look at a lot of guys who have had a lot of success in the league, they’ve had adversity along the way so I think it’s something everyone goes through and you’ve just got to take it in stride and become a better person for it.”

Hayton suffered a hand injury in early January that required minor surgery. He said he jammed it during a battle. Instead of Hayton cursing his continued bad luck, GM Bill Armstrong said that he used the time productively and professionally.

Hayton said he did a lot of speed work and capacity training with head strength and conditioning coach Mitch Stewart and the Coyotes training staff.

“I give some credit to him,” Armstrong said. “I think there’s a path as a young player when you go through stuff like that where it does make you a little bit stronger and more appreciative of actually being in the lineup and contributing. Barrett went home in the summer and really trained hard for this season. And then when he had this operation on his hand, again he used the time wisely. He’s definitely someone that is always trying to push and get better. He’s competitive about it.

“He’s obviously got to come back into our lineup and find a way to contribute again. That’s always a battle to do that coming off an injury and jumping back into the season. But he’s got some energy, he’s rejuvenated out there and he looks like he’s feeling pretty good at this point.” 

Even with COVID-19 added to the mix, it would be hard to find a more disjointed development path than the one that Hayton has navigated. In the season after the Coyotes drafted him No. 5 overall, he had 26 goals and 66 points in 39 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL). Then-Coyotes GM John Chayka and assistant GM Steve Sullivan felt that Hayton had achieved all that he could at the junior level, so they kept him on the NHL club in 2019-20. 

He played 14 games in the first two months before the Coyotes loaned him to Team Canada for the World Junior Championship. He finished second in the tournament in points (12), and he scored a dramatic goal to tie the gold-medal game against Russia midway through the third period — a game that Canada eventually won — while playing through the shoulder separation sustained in the semifinals against Finland.

Instead of using that tournament as a springboard to NHL success, he was sidelined because of the injury. By the time he was ready to play in late February, his rhythm was gone, the team was in a playoff push and he only found his way into the lineup for six more games before COVID-19 shut down the world.

He played three games in the playoff bubble five months later against Nashville. He played eight games for Tampereen Ilves in the SM-Liiga (Finland) to fine-tune his game alongside fellow prospect Matias Maccelli. He played 26 games with Tucson in a 2020-21 AHL season shortened by the pandemic, and he played 14 with the Coyotes, but he never recaptured the magic that had an entire nation celebrating him. In 40 games split between the AHL and NHL last season, he had eight goals and 13 points.

This season, he has played 27 games including a 5-3 loss to the Kings on Friday. He has two goals and six points.

While Hayton’s game away from the puck is strong for a 21-year-old player, the Coyotes are still looking for the offensive spark that led the past regime to draft him fifth overall in 2018.

“He played a lot of minutes early on against some tough competition,” Armstrong said. “He probably won’t see that type of competition now, like one weekend when he played against (Connor) McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl. Hopefully, we can get him in a little bit different role and he can jump into that role and produce.”

With all that Hayton has been through already, and with the attitude he has maintained throughout the string of setbacks, it would be a fitting reward for him to finally enjoy a sustained run of success.

Ryan Dzingel played just 26 games with the Coyotes, recording four goals and seven points. (Getty Images)

Trade analysis

In previous lists, I never mentioned defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and forward Ryan Dzingel as anything more than minor trade possibilities because my sense from talking to league sources was that neither had much trade value on his own. While there were multiple teams interested in Lyubushkin, they were not offering a high pick for him. I had heard a fifth-round pick was his value.

So GM Bill Armstrong and his staff got creative in packaging both players to land their choice of Toronto’s third-round pick in 2023 or a second-round pick in 2025, while relieving the Maple Leafs of a contract they have been trying to shed for a while in forward Nick Ritchie.

If the Coyotes can revive Ritchie into a productive player over the next season-plus before his contract expires, maybe he will be able to bring them another asset in return. If not, the Coyotes still got something of value for two players whom they were not planning to re-sign this summer. 

Dzingel was never more than a roster fill-in and the Leafs apparently don’t even see that sort of role for him.

With several young defensemen coming up next season including Victor Söderström, Vladislav Kolyachonok and Cam Dineen, Armstrong wanted the path clear for them to get an opportunity. Lyubushkin will be 28 in April. He did not figure in the Coyotes’ plans.

As I noted in the original trade story on Saturday, Armstrong is still focused on acquiring more draft assets. He has a stockpile of them in 2022, including eight in the first two rounds of the July draft, but he would like to accumulate more that he can push to 2023, 2024 and 2025 so that he has a steady stream of prospects moving through the system, a volume of prospects to increase the scouting staff’s odds of hitting on a few, and assets in his back pocket should the Coyotes reach a point where they want to package some of those picks for a good player that might be available on the market.

As it stands right now, the Coyotes have three second-round picks in 2024 and two third-round picks. If they opt to pass on Toronto’s 2023 third-round pick — a strong possibility — they’ll also have two second-round picks in 2025. Second-round picks have immense value and Armstrong’s staff in St. Louis made good use of them by selecting players such as Jordan Kyrou, Vince Dunn, Ivan Barbashev and William Carrier. Those are the kinds of pieces that add depth to an organization and a lineup, and with the most experienced and complete scouting staff the Coyotes have ever boasted, Arizona could unearth similar players.

The rebuild blueprint continues to unfold.

Ilya Lyubushkin became a Coyotes fan favorite due to his physical play and his friendly demeanor. (Getty Images)

Lyubushkin’s opportunity

Ilya Lyubushkin and his family grew to love living in the Valley, so much so that insiders speculated that Lyubushkin might choose to return to his native Russia when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, rather than play in another market. 

Lyubushkin’s agent, Craig Oster, put the kibosh on such talk. Lyubushkin intends to continue his NHL career after this season.

Lyubushkin is likely a depth defenseman on most NHL teams, playing in either the No. 6 or No. 7 slot, but he does have some value as a right-handed shot who brings a heavy game and has better-than-average mobility. The good-in-the-room label gets overused but Lyubushkin was immensely popular with his teammates because he is such an irrepressibly positive soul. Now he gets the chance to compete for a team that has legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations; a far cry from what he was dealing with in Arizona.

As for his four seasons in Arizona, Lyubushkin said he has many good memories including this one: “”When the fans scream ‘Booooosh!'”

Veteran center Jay Beagle could be another desired asset at the trade deadline. (Getty Images)

Loose pucks

  • GM Bill Armstrong confirmed on Saturday that the Coyotes have begun preliminary talks with goaltender Karel Vejmelka on a contract extension. Vejmelka has a 3.51 goals against average, a .900 save percentage and a minus-8.9 goals saved above average. He is still trying to find consistency in his first season of North American pro hockey, but he has also turned in 13 quality starts this season and he has faced more than 35 shots in a game 12 times this season in 31 games. He has also turned in at least 10 spectacular performances at Buffalo (Oct. 16), at Washington (Oct. 29), at Carolina (Oct. 31), at Philadelphia (Nov. 2), at Los Angeles (Nov. 21), at Winnipeg (Nov. 29), against Winnipeg (Jan. 4), against Toronto (Jan. 12), at New Jersey (Jan. 19), and at Seattle (Feb. 9). Oddly enough, Vejmelka has a 2.76 goals against average and a .920 save percentage on the road, but a 4.19 goals against average and an .883 save percentage at home.
  • Armstrong said that center Jay Beagle is back on the ice about seven weeks after lower-body surgery. At the time of the injury, Armstrong projected the recovery timeline as anywhere from eight weeks to the rest of the season, based on some difficulty that Beagle had with a similar surgery earlier in his career. Armstrong now thinks that Beagle will be back in the lineup before the March 21 trade deadline.

And finally, this:

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