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What’s best for Barrett? Does center prospect need more AHL seasoning, or is he NHL-ready?

Craig Morgan Avatar
September 29, 2021

Midway through a frustrating 2020-21 season, Tucson Roadrunners coach Steve Potvin sat down with Barrett Hayton to show him what success looks like at the NHL center position. It wasn’t what Hayton was expecting.

There were no highlight-reel sauce passes or breakaway goals followed by exuberant cellys. Much of the content featured deep-dive details and thankless drudgery. It was a hockey science class befitting the two understated stars whom Potvin wanted Hayton to study and emulate.

Those subjects were Bruins center Patrice Bergeron and Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, two players who have four Stanley Cups and an assortment of individual awards between them.

“We looked at positive, neutral and negative shifts of two pretty elite players that are 200-foot centers, and we found out that there weren’t too many negative shifts in their games. They were mostly positive or neutral,” Potvin said. “What I tried to convey to Barrett is that the neutral stuff shouldn’t be viewed as a negative because a lot of the neutral stuff is stuff that you have to do and is expected of you as a player. 

“As we went through the film, we found that Patrice Bergeron was a neutral guy who had probably three or four positive shifts in a game, but he was neutral most of the game. You could watch Patrice play four games and he’d have one negative shift out of all the shifts he had, but when the time came, he was able to make that next-level play at the right time, which gave him that positive. I wanted Barrett to understand where they made their money. They made their money by making their linemates better, by managing the puck, by being above their opponents defensively and changing on time. That’s something that we tried to key on.”

The experience was eye-opening for Hayton.

“They’re both superstars,” he said. “They’re winners and they’ve had so much success in this game, but when you’re watching all these shifts, honestly, they’re just in the right position and making the right plays. There’s nothing really noticeable that happens. They just manage the game so well and they get their opportunities from playing the right way and then the talent takes over from there. I learned a lot from breaking them down, shift by shift, with Pots.”

Barrett Hayton kisses the championship trophy after Canada won the gold medal at the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)

Disjointed development

NHL players often encounter adversity over the course of their careers, but it would be hard to construct more hurdles than Hayton has already faced along his development path. In the season after the Coyotes made him the surprising No. 5 overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft, Hayton silenced some critics by proving that he could be an elite point producer with 26 goals and 66 points in 39 games for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL). The Coyotes felt that Hayton had achieved all that he could achieve at the junior level, so they kept him on the NHL club in 2019-20 because that pesky CHL-NHL agreement (which was recently extended for one more season) would not allow Hayton, then 19, to play in the AHL.

Hayton didn’t light it up early in his first NHL season, but he played 14 games in the first two months before the Coyotes loaned him to Team Canada for the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. He was a star on that stage. 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 a Grade 1 shoulder separation sustained in the semifinals against Finland.

The Coyotes had hoped that Hayton would use the tournament as a springboard to success. Instead, he was sidelined because of the injury. By the time he was ready to play in late February, his mojo 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. That’s when his odyssey began.

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 an 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.

“People always say it’s all about timing and finding your path at the right time and I never really believed that,” Potvin said. “I always felt like you create your own time, but these are things that really were out of his control. I don’t think he could have done anything different so timing was a real issue for him. 

“He got injured at Worlds and I think if he hadn’t gotten injured he comes in and he probably keeps that roll going and he just rides a wave into the NHL and he’s got great confidence and maybe the outcome is a little bit different. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to go through those hard times to actually put yourself in a better position later on.”

Hayton acknowledges that the challenges that he has faced are significant, but he has shifted his mind set from one of frustration to one of forward thinking. 

“It’s definitely been a unique two years now, but I’m trying to roll with it, trying to grow from it,” he said. “Not many people experience that, but as hard as it’s been, it’s something that I’ve got to use to my advantage. A lot of people go through different kinds of adversities in their career, and this is one for me so I am trying to use it as a chance to be able to reset, to get back to what made me successful in the first place and to learn from all the different experiences I’ve been through.

“In the long run, it’s definitely going to be something I can look back on and kind of dig through adversities that will come in the future. No matter what you do, there are always going to be bumps in the road.”

Barrett Hayton is one three possibilities for the fourth and final spot on the center depth chart. (USA TODAY Sports)

Opportunity knocks

When Hayton returned to Canada this summer, he did so with a narrower focus. He worked out with famed trainer Andy O’Brien, who lists Sidney Crosby, John Tavares and Nathan MacKinnon among his clients. He did one-on-one sessions with former Coyotes skating coach Dawn Braid, who lists Tavares and Joe Pavelski among her most famous clients.

“I’ve always worked on my skating but this summer was a little different,” Hayton said. “I didn’t do skill skates and stuff like that. I did that stuff off the ice for the first five, six weeks. I just did my skating. Obviously, there’s game-like situations in skating. It’s not just straight up and down the ice, but I wanted to do that just to get that muscle memory. I think that’s big for me. 

“I wanted to gain a step, get separation, and I thought that was the best way to do it. I feel a big difference with that.”

There always seems to be a narrative associated with younger players that the upcoming season is the most important one for them. It is undeniably true for Hayton, however. There has been a shift to a new coaching staff and a new philosophy within the organization. The players that were considered crown jewels of the previous management group have no special standing with the current management group. 

Right now, Hayton appears to be in a battle for one remaining spot on the center depth chart. Nick Schmaltz and Johan Larsson are locks, and coach André Tourigny said recently that Jay Beagle will also play center, so that likely leaves Hayton in a fight with Travis Boyd and perhaps Ryan Dzingel (who can also play wing) for the final spot; three players with different skill sets.

Hayton had a good start to the first preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. He logged 19:10 of ice time (second most among forwards), he won 12 of 18 faceoffs, he had four shot attempts, but he also appeared to fade a bit later in the game.

“I see his effort, I see his compete level and I see him going into the hard areas, playing with a lot of determination,” Tourigny said. “He will be the first guy to talk about his season last year and how he would have loved to have a better season but you have two ways you can react to that. You can whine or you can take the bull by the horns and do what you have to do and he did that by training with Andy O’Brien and skating with Dawn Braid; two well-known people. 

“He’s doing a really good job so far. He is fighting for a job but he’s certainly part of the planning.”

(photo courtesy of Kate Dibildox Photography)

GM Bill Armstrong and assistant GM John Ferguson Jr. have both preached the importance of over-baking prospects in the AHL to make sure that they are ready for the rigors of the NHL. If Hayton wants an NHL job this season, he will probably have to be the clearcut winner of this ongoing roster battle.

The Coyotes must also consider whether they want Hayton playing in the environment of a rebuild, where the team is likely to lose a lot of games.

“We’ll see where his game is,” Tourigny said. “We know he will be a good player for us. The question is: Is it now or is it in the near future? I believe in Barrett. I think he is a really good player. I think he will be an important player for us at some point. Where is that point? Is it tomorrow or is it the year after? I don’t know. It’s too early to say right now but again, I believe in his game.”

Hayton knows that many eyes are upon him this season. The Coyotes desperately need top centers in their pipeline and his draft status creates external expectations that he can’t escape.

“Being a high draft pick, obviously there’s pressures, but that’s never been my focus,” he said. “It’s never been anything above what I’ve put on myself. I want to produce. I want to dominate the game. I want to play in all zones; all situations. I want to make something happen every shift because that’s what I love about hockey, but you learn in pro hockey that you’re able to do that by having those neutral shifts, managing the game, and then making those difference-maker plays when they come instead of forcing it.

“I feel like I’ve really grown as a person and I’ve transitioned into my game what I’ve been doing with my training and everything to get ready for this season. It’s kind of a fresh start, a reset this season. I had a great offseason, put in a ton of work, and I’m really looking forward to having this opportunity and taking a spot and being the player I know I am.”

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