It was only a few weeks ago that John Hayden, still a senior at Yale University, seemed like a long shot to make an impact on the Blackhawks anytime soon. He was one of their top prospects and generally considered NHL-ready, but the Blackhawks are a Stanley Cup contender that already spent months working other rookies into the lineup.
Well, hey, I guess what’s one more, right?
Fast forward to late March, and now there’s a real chance that Hayden is playing significant minutes for the Blackhawks in the playoffs. It’s an incredible turnaround for the 22-year-old, who just recently finished his college hockey career, but one that makes sense to anyone who has been watching.
Hayden has immediately fit into the Blackhawks’ top line over his first four games. Yes, they came against decent to bad opponents, and it’s a sample size small enough that even the most tepid takes need to be swallowed with a grain of salt. But it’s also four straight games where the rookie has looked like a legit NHL forward, and if he keeps playing like this, it’ll be difficult to pull him, even for someone more experienced.
Starting with the numbers, Hayden has put up one goal and two assists in his first four NHL games. He almost had another goal, too, but his game-tying effort against the Canucks on Tuesday night was waved off following an offsides challenge. For some comparison, Vinnie Hinostroza had the same number of points in his first 20 games.
But what makes Hayden so intriguing is that he can be more than a scorer. Hayden is built like a prototypical NHL power forward at 6’4 and 223 pounds, which means few opponents can push him around. And while there were questions about his quickness throughout his college career, he spent his senior year focusing on improving to overcome that flaw.
Hayden still doesn’t have the raw speed of other NHL players (not surprising given his size), but over the first four games, you’ve seen how he can use his size, hockey I.Q., and quick feet to stay active even if he can’t hit 0-to-60 like other players. It’s been notable on the forecheck in particular, where his willingness to throw his big frame around without getting caught too far out of position helps free up pucks along the boards.
The rookie already has 18 hits, which is the same number posted by Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin in significantly more games. Hayden already has more hits than Nick Schmaltz.
Not that the Blackhawks go crazy for guys who like to lay on the lumber out there, but Hayden brings a different element than so many of their other players. The team generally won’t accept that kind of physicality in lieu of ability to play with the puck, but it’ll gladly take the players who can bridge those gaps to fill out their roster beside the stars.
Hayden feels like he could be that kind of player already. He’s big, he’s smart (dude went to Yale!), and thus far, we’ve seen enough skill that he’s not just those two other things. It’s been a helluva audition so far, and while he’ll need to keep it up in a big way to avoid losing his role once Anisimov returns, he’s played his way into the mix, even if it’s as bottom six fodder for the playoffs. For a player whose impact wasn’t expected until 2017-18 at the earliest, it’s been an impressive debut.