Coyotes GM Chayka strays outside box again, selects center Barrett Hayton
DALLAS – John Chayka has pulled off some draft-day surprises in his short tenure as the Coyotes general manager.
He drafted Clayton Keller at No. 7 in 2016 when most analysts thought he would and should take a defenseman. He ate Pavel Datsyuk’s contract to draft defenseman Jakob Chychrun in that same draft. He dealt the No. 7 pick along with defenseman Anthony DeAngelo to acquire center Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta at last season’s draft, and he traded defenseman Connor Murphy and forward Laurent Dauphin to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
All of those moves were surprising in their own right, but none drew the negative reaction that Friday’s first move at the 2018 NHL Draft drew.
While there was speculation that the Coyotes would move up or down, Chayka stood firm at No. 5 and selected Sault Ste. Marie center Barrett Hayton (6-foot-1, 190 pounds), a player virtually nobody had ranked in their top 10 prospects. With the following pick, the Detroit Red Wings selected Czech wing Filip Zadina, the scoring wing that most Coyotes fans wanted Chayka to take after Brady Tkachuk went off the board at No. 4 to Ottawa.
The fanbase wasn’t happy. Chayka was.
“I think everyone wants instant analysis,” Chayka said. “In reality, when you go through drafts, you look back and you find out who was right and who was wrong. We feel confident in our pick.
“We’re trying to build through the middle and we think we’ve got a great center ice depth, we think we’ve got great depth on defense and we think we’ve got a great goalie pipeline as well. When I look at that and I look at how you build foundations of teams, I’m really excited about the future of this organization.”
Hayton, who turned 18 two weeks ago, had 21 goals and 60 points in 63 games last season. He added eight goals and 21 points in 24 playoff games, but Coyotes director of amateur scouting Tim Bernhardt said the stats don’t tell the whole story.
“I’ve watched Barrett for the last two years,” Bernhardt said. “He kept passing the test of time, getting better and better. He’s not overly flashy but when you watch the subtleties in his game, the details in his game and how competitive he is, that was something that really drew us to him. That 200-foot game is the name of his game; a Jonathan Toews type of game.”
While Hayton’s draft ranking was lower, Chayka was still concerned that another team would take him if the Coyotes moved down to acquire more assets, so he stayed at No. 5 and got his man.
“He’s a premium person, premium player, playing a premium position. He’s a foundational piece for us,” Chayka said. “Ultimately, it’s not a difference of evaluation, it’s a difference of prioritization of what you value and what you think is important. We valued the sense, we valued the center ice position, we valued the leadership, we valued the whole package because there’s no holes in this guy’s game.”
Like Bernhardt, Chayka watched Hayton a lot. He said he watched 10 games live and “started getting obsessed with him around Christmas time,” eventually watching all of his games on tape as the draft drew closer. The Coyotes also spent time with Hayton at the NHL Scouting Combine in May.
“I got a great feel for Arizona through the interview process so I knew there was a chance,” said Hayton, who was the first Canadian taken in the draft. “There was definitely interest, I felt, but you never really know.
Hayton said the Coyotes were the team he wanted to join most.
“We talked a lot about their organization and the steps they have in place,” he said. “I like everything about the direction they’re going in. I feel they have an amazing future. They have a tremendous core of guys now.”
Hayton has specific areas he believes he must improve to get to the NHL.
“I feel just getting more explosive,” he said. “Also, with the way the game’s being played, playing with higher pace. You see the NHL style now and especially in the playoffs, the pace is so high so it’s just training my mind to just constantly play at that high pace.”
There have been some questions about Hayton’s first step, but Chayka thinks it’s just a matter of maturation.
“With his current skating, he’s a very effective, very productive player,” Chayka said. “I just think that element starts coming with some leg strength and that will take his game to another level.”
Both Chayka and Bernhardt expect Hayton to play another year in juniors. After that is anybody’s guess.
“He’s the type of player that could come sooner than you think because he understands the game so well,” Bernhardt said. “We see him as top-two line center but he could start as a bottom two center because he can play the game any way it needs to be played.”
Chayka downplayed the importance of drafting premium positions on a recent conference call, but it’s a philosophy both he and Bernhardt circled back to on Friday after the first round had concluded.
“Every year, you can go back and look at guys like Mark Scheifele and Ryan Johansen and those guys were rated lower,” Bernhardt said. “Teams need center ice. We don’t need it right now but you’re going to need it down the road.
“When it’s time for him to play in the NHL, I’m sure we’ll need it. We have to stockpile that position and if we have too many, we know our phone is going to ring because other teams will need it.”