The Chicago Blackhawks continued their effort to funnel young talent into the organization by signing top prospect John Hayden on Sunday. The two-year entry-level deal begins now as Hayden reports to Chicago, and it’s expected that he’ll make his NHL debut before the end of the season.
Hayden could’ve walked as a free agent in August if he didn’t sign, but the Blackhawks sold him on the opportunity he’ll get here. And not only was his ELC limited to two years as a 22-year-old, but by having one of those years burned now, he’ll become a restricted free agent following his proper rookie season.
That’s something of a win-win situation for both sides, as it would’ve been a major disappointment for the Blackhawks if Hayden decided to walk a la Kevin Hayes or Jimmy Vesey.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that Hayden is moving quickly through the system for two reasons. First, he’s widely considered an almost NHL-ready prospect who could acclimate himself quickly at hockey’s top level. Second, this move mirrors what the Blackhawks did with some other prospects who signed out of college, such as Kyle Baun, Matt Carey, and Drew LeBlanc, who all got brief NHL auditions after signing with the Hawks.
The hope is that Hayden will pan out better than any of those players did. He’s got a good chance, too, given the combination of an NHL player’s frame and skills that developed significantly over his four seasons at Yale University. Here’s more on the Blackhawks’ newest forward.
Hayden was selected No. 74 overall in 2013, so he was well-regarded but not quite considered an elite prospect. Even now, after four years of strong development, he’s not in that camp, but it’s fair to say that the 22-year-old has progressed a good deal since he was drafted four years ago.
As a senior at Yale, Hayden was named team captain. He finished the season with career-highs of 21 goals and 13 assists in 33 games, establishing himself as one of the best goal scorers in his conference. His production steadily increased over his four seasons with the Bulldogs:
Hayden finished his senior season tied for eighth among goal scorers in Division I hockey, and tied for 59th among point leaders. He was also a beast on the power play, with 12 of his 21 goals coming with the man advantage. That’s tied for fifth nationally in college hockey.
Another area to get excited about Hayden, particularly in terms of projecting him at the next level, is that he’s an absolute shot machine. The forward led Yale with 174 shots on goal, and nobody else on the team had more than 84. Hayden was operating on an entirely different level offensively for the Bulldogs, and averaging nearly 5.3 shots per game is nothing to scoff at.
It’s clear that Yale leaned heavily on Hayden to be one of its offensive stars, and he won’t be asked to do that at the next level. But the fact that he could elevate his game to fill that role so ably is a strong sign for his ability to continue producing against better competition.
So how does Hayden get all those goals? The simple answer is that he’s a very large man who understands how to leverage his size to gain strong positioning, and has enough skill to finish chances when the puck gets to him. He’s not unlike former Blackhawks winger Bryan Bickell in that way, and from a distance, they’re both built very similarly.
Where Hayden will need to separate himself is his ability to play with speed. He’s never been a high-level skater and tends to get his goals because of his frame, positioning, and smart play, rather than some overwhelming degree of skill. He’s gotten better, but that’s not the kind of player he is, so don’t expect him to blow by or dangle around NHLers anytime soon.
Part of the concern there, of course, is that Hayden won’t be able to succeed once his size advantage is diminished in the NHL. Given his lack of quickness and sheer ability with the puck on his stick, he’ll need to show that he has the motor and hockey I.Q. to to match his sturdy frame and create problems for opponents.
But Hayden has been so good at the college level this season that there’s reason to be optimistic. His production on the power play hints at one area where he could potentially fit with the Blackhawks. Outside of Artem Anisimov, Richard Panik, and the ocassional visit from Jonathan Toews, there aren’t a ton of guys on the roster comfortable going for those greasy goals in front of the net.
That’s where Hayden thrived as a senior, and it may be where he needs to plant himself in the NHL. He can wield his size as a weapon in those situations, and hopefully he’s solid enough elsewhere that the Blackhawks can add that to their power play arsenal.
Why he chose the Hawks
There were a couple times when The Athletic’s Scott Powers interviewed Hayden recently that they discussed the Blackhawks. Hayden didn’t have to sign with the team this year — in fact, he passed up a contract offer in 2016 — but he said all along that was his plan.
As team captain at Yale, Hayden said he used Jonathan Toews as inspiration for how to approach the position.
“You look at Chicago, I think Jonathan Toews is considered the best captain in the league for a reason,” said Hayden. “He’s got a ton of respect in the locker room from what I understand, and he shows it on the ice. For me, I think it’s about setting the tone with my play and trying to lead by example with energy.”
He’s also aware of the Blackhawks’ recent push toward getting younger, which obviously bodes well for his prospects of landing a gig soon.
“It’s very encouraging. I’m pretty close with Motter, Schmaltzy [Nick Schmaltz], Vinnie [Hinostroza] and Hartzy,” Hayden said. “I’ve spent time with them the last few summers. They’re doing a good job. Yeah, definitely encouraging to see that.”
Most players end up signing with the team that drafted them, so it shouldn’t be that surprising that Hayden inked a deal. That’s particularly true with spots all over the roster for 2017-18 still up for grabs, which was surely his No. 1 priority in signing.
What to expect now
Hayden reported to the Blackhawks on Monday, so it’s possible that he could step into the lineup soon. That might seem a bit aggressive, but Hayden just finished a very good year, he’s built like a truck, and he’s already 22 years old. This isn’t quite the same as throwing Nick Schmaltz into the fire at age 20 following an offseason of relative down time.
Then again, we should also temper expectations right off the bat. Hayden is a good prospect, but the Blackhawks have a fairly rigid system. They like to play with a lot of speed. Lots of rookies take time to adapt to all that, and expecting any different from Hayden would be foolish.
Most likely, Hayden will get some reps in a few games before the end of the season. The Blackhawks are already firmly in a playoff spot so there’s not much to risk there. And once the playoffs start, he’ll presumably stick around as a black ace, taking in the playoff atmosphere while serving as an emergency backup.
That should be useful experience going into the offseason, where Hayden will hopefully continue working on parts of his game like his skating. In the fall, he’ll be among the prime candidates battling for spots on the NHL roster, and there’s a decent chance he’ll carve out a bottom six role sooner than later.