Name: Barrett Hayton
Team: Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
Stats: 63 GP, 21 goals, 39 assists, 60 points, 32 PIMs, +24 plus-minus rating
NHL Central Scouting Ranking: 9th (North American Skaters)
NHL Comparable Player: J.T. Miller
When evaluating hockey prospects ahead of the NHL entry draft, a player’s environment can sometimes make a scout’s job a whole lot harder.
Playing on a weak team with underwhelming teammates can be both a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the circumstance. On one hand, maybe a top prospect on a basement-dwelling club gets a ton of ice time, including both sides of special teams, helping to boost their development. On the other hand, however, playing for a team with no supporting talent and a disastrous system might make a prospect look a lot worse than they really are, especially if roster-wide demoralization and a losing culture set in.
On the flip side, a similar challenge can be found when a top prospect plays on a powerhouse club. Sometimes an elite talent gets buried down a lineup behind older, more experienced players, masking how good they really are. At the same time, and more dangerous for scouts, is that sometimes prospects look a lot better than they really are because they’re being propped up by better players. To use a recent example involving NHLers: does Chris Kunitz average a point-per-game in 2013 or make Canada’s 2014 Olympic team without being stapled to Sidney Crosby’s hip? With all due respect to Kunitz, probably not.
Separating a player from these sorts of environments and determining how good they really are (or aren’t) is an essential, but often challenging, task.
Few prospects eligible for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft represent this challenge quite like center Barrett Hayton.
First, let’s start with who Hayton is as a player. At roughly 6’1” and 190 pounds, Hayton’s dimensions might not make him seem particularly big, but he still manages to play an impressive power game. He’s stocky and strong, a guy who wins a lot of pucks in board battles and is hard to box out of high-danger scoring areas. He has a natural chip on his shoulder and loves to play a physical game, not so much as an open-ice hitter, but moreso as a guy who trades paint, leans into opponents and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty when fighting for pucks.
What makes Hayton especially intriguing is that he also possesses real skill with the puck, which he combines with his physical play to be dangerous deep in the offensive zone. He’ll lean on a defender to dig a puck loose, and then using quick, soft hands will thread a clean pass to an open teammate. If defenders try to stop him by going for the puck instead of taking the body Hayton can keep the play alive in a number of ways, turning his body to shield the puck, swinging the puck wide with a long reach, slipping it through the defender’s legs or going around them with a slick toe drag. He also possesses some real scoring ability, as his wrist shot is hard, accurate and comes off his stick in a hurry. A really hard player to stop when he gets going in the cycle.
Hayton’s strongest areas of the game, however, come on the mental side. His awareness and hockey IQ are elite, processing the play at an advanced pace. He understands how the play is unfolding and puts himself in the places to find the most success, both with and without the puck. His decision-making when he has the puck on his stick is very impressive, both in the little plays to fend off defenders and keep the play alive, but also in the bigger plays, finding those brief windows to create prime scoring opportunities, both for himself and his teammates. He already has a mature, professional attitude about him, doing a lot of the little things that NHLers do but often take a long time for prospects to nail down. It’s obvious that Hayton has been coached very, very well coming up through the youth hockey ranks and is adept at applying what he’s been taught.
The only real knack on Hayton’s skill is his skating, and it’s a big critique. His feet are heavy, hurting his acceleration and ability to quickly shift gears. His top speed in open ice is alright, but it’s nothing special and it takes him too long to get there. He’s really strong on his skates, with a wide and firm base, so he has that going for him. However, if Hayton’s overall mobility doesn’t improve it could be a real problem in the NHL, possibly preventing him from ever becoming a Top 6 forward. His puck skills can buy him enough time and space in junior, but if his feet don’t move faster in the NHL defenders are going to close in on him a lot.
Now, going back to what this article started off with: the importance of environments.
Hayton plays for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, one of the best organizations in all of Canadian junior hockey. The Greyhounds have been a dominant franchise for a few years now, going back to when Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe were running the show. Their 2017-18 roster was especially impressive, loaded with NHL-drafted talent such as Morgan Frost, Conor Timmins, Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk and others still. They romped through the league this year before falling in the OHL finals to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
Make no mistake, though: Hayton was a big part of this team. He logged a lot of ice time alongside those older drafted players and held his own, often producing shifts where he was the best player on the ice, even in the playoffs. He was trusted by his coaches in all situations, including both sides of special teams.
So, was Hayton overshadowed somewhat because of his team, or did all the talent around him make him look better than he was? The answer seems to be that neither of those things were the case. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it should still give interested NHL teams some pause.
Hayton scored 60 points in 63 games this season, and of those 60 points, 21 came from SSM’s deadly power play. You could maybe make a slight argument that Hayton’s scoring totals were boosted a little by the PP, but you can’t really make the argument that he was held back by playing on a deep team given how he was used. Scoring totals aren’t everything, but producing slightly less than a point-per-game average as one of a team’s trusted players is a little underwhelming for a prospect who is considered a 1st round pick.
There seems to be a consensus among scouts that Hayton has the potential to go on to a long, reliable NHL career, and it’s easy to see why. He’s big, he’s smart, he has some skill, he works hard and he’s currently being developed by one of the best organizations in junior hockey. Him playing center also goes a long way. That’s an impressive package.
Still, because of his heavy feet you have to wonder just how high his ceiling is and how high he should go in the draft. If teams want a safe, low-risk utility player they can’t really go wrong. But if they want a player who is going to be a big scorer or a dominant force in the NHL? That’s a gamble.
It’s hard to say what the Dallas Stars will be looking for with their 13th overall pick in this year’s draft, but Hayton will probably draw a lot of interest. The Stars love two-way forwards with size and have relied a lot on their OHL scouts in recent years, so there seems to be a potential fit here. Whether he will be the best player available or the best fit for what the Stars need in their system right now is far more debatable.