Over the past two seasons, Barrett Hayton has spent four games with the Coyotes and has laced the skates for exactly zero of them.
During that time many have wondered why Hayton, who was returned to his junior hockey club after the first two games of the 2018-19 season, was occupying an NHL roster spot if all he was going to do was model a suit in the press box.
Well, the posturing may finally be over, as it appears Hayton could be trading his necktie for a helmet and gloves for Thursday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights at Gila River Arena.
With Lawson Crouse dealing with an upper-body injury, the stars seem to have aligned for Hayton, the club’s fifth overall pick in the 2018 draft, to make his NHL debut.
“He’s close,” Tocchet said after Wednesday’s practice. “Whether he plays tomorrow or the next game, he’s really close.”
Not only has Hayton been practicing on a line with Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak, but the 19-year-old has been going through power-play drills alongside Phil Kessel, Clayton Keller, Derek Stepan and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
“I’m very excited,” Hayton said of potentially debuting this week. “I think it’s been great getting into some regular rotations in practice. Obviously playing with ‘Schmaltzy’ and ‘Dvo’ is funny because we’re all kind of quiet guys but we’ve got a little chemistry and have been clicking really good. … It’s all been a ton of fun.”
The Coyotes have scored only one goal in the first two games this season, and have received little offensive firepower outside of the Keller-Stepan-Kessel line.
Tocchet also knows the power-play must get into a rhythm if the Coyotes are going to compete. The talent on paper suggests the unit could be a formidable one, and Hayton could provide a skill-set needed to reach that level.
“He’s got the characteristics of a power-play guy,” Tocchet said. “That’s something we really need. Retrievals are really big on a power play. Everybody wants to see plays and I know everybody is talking about the power play struggling, but when a power play is struggling it’s because of retrievals and because guys aren’t moving their feet to give support. I think that’s something Barrett is good at.”
The jury is still out on whether Hayton will remain with the Coyotes past the nine-game trial period. The Coyotes can save a year of Hayton’s entry-level contract if he plays nine or fewer NHL games this season.
If the Coyotes do not have a spot for Hayton in their lineup, their only options are to bench him or send him back to juniors. Under the stipulations of the NHL-CHL agreement, Hayton is ineligible to play in the AHL since he is under 20 years old.
That being said, both Tocchet and Coyotes President of Hockey Operations and General Manager John Chayka are on record saying they believe Hayton can contribute to the NHL club this season.
No one is expecting Hayton to open the floodgates of the Coyotes offense, but it’s still interesting to ponder the effect he could have on a team finding its identity this season.
The Coyotes drafted Hayton in part because of his stellar two-way play and advanced cerebral skills. There is little concern Hayton will be overwhelmed at the next level, but the NHL is still a far leap from juniors.
“I think he had a really good camp,” Tocchet said. “There was one (preseason) game I didn’t like but he came right back and played well. That’s what you like to see in kids. Sometimes you get (situations) where you have a bad game and then it becomes three or four in a row.
“(Barrett) bounced back quickly because of his hockey IQ. And I know I’ve told you guys that I love his hockey IQ.”
The Coyotes couldn’t solve Bruins goaltender Jaroslav Halak on Saturday.
Richard Morin, azcentral sports
Coyotes vs. Vegas Golden Knights, 7 p.m., Thursday: The Coyotes search for their first win of the season when they welcome their desert rivals for a Thursday tilt at Gila River Arena. … This is the first matchup between the teams this season. … The Coyotes went 2-1-1 in four games against the Golden Knights last season. … The Coyotes have scored one goal this season, courtesy of alternate captain Derek Stepan. … Coyotes rookie Barrett Hayton could make his first NHL appearance.
(Based on observations and subject to change):
Clayton Keller — Derek Stepan — Phil Kessel
Barrett Hayton — Christian Dvorak — Nick Schmaltz
Michael Grabner — Brad Richardson — Vinnie Hinostroza
Conor Garland — Carl Soderberg — Christian Fischer
Oliver Ekman-Larsson — Jason Demers
Niklas Hjalmarsson — Alex Goligoski
Jakob Chychrun — Jordan Oesterle
Antti Raanta (starter)
Scratched: Lawson Crouse, Kyle Capobianco, Eric Comrie.
Injury report: Crouse (upper body) has not practiced with the team this week and is not expected to suit up for Thursday’s game.
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