When John Hayden participated in the Blackhawks’ prospect camp last summer, his course for the fall was already set. The Blackhawks probably had more opportunities for young forwards entering the 2016-17 season than in the past several years but for Hayden, playing his senior season at Yale was the best choice for him.
“Obviously all of us want to play pro hockey. That’s our goal. For me, it was just trying to take a step back and see the big picture and not take it too fast. I think I’ll really develop with one more year at Yale,” Hayden said in July. “Obviously it’s not easy, but the pros will still be there.”
Fast forward to the present day and yes, the pros are still here. With his senior year complete and his game developed a little more, Hayden is now among them.
Hayden signed a two-year deal with the Blackhawks on Sunday and made his debut the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night. Hayden, who the Blackhawks let take the first lap in warmups in honor of his NHL debut, logged 8:44 of ice time against the Senators. He landed the first of his three hits in his first few seconds on the ice.
His senior season at Yale was a successful one. Hayden set career highs in goals (21) assists (13) and points (34) in 34 games with Yale. For Hayden, there’s no doubt it was worth returning for that final season.
“It was an amazing experience this year,” he said in Montreal. “Obviously fell short at Harvard a few days ago but it was an incredible experience helping lead that team, especially the seniors I’ve been with for a few years now. I’ve been developing pretty steadily the last few years. I think coach [Keith] Allain has done a great job, so I’m very appreciative.”
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Quenneville said he sees the difference in Hayden from when he saw him in the summer until now.
“Not seeing him for a while and see him add more pace to his game. It looks like he can add an element to our team,” Quenneville said on Tuesday. “Over the last day or so, going over our systems, we’ll let him be aware how we play and what things to look for into the game. He’s a direct player and we don’t want him to change that too much.”
The pace of which Quenneville spoke was something Hayden wanted to improve over his senior season and he feels better about it now – not that he’s done working on it.
“It’s something I’ve been addressing every summer the last few years. Coach Allain plays a very high tempo game, so everyone year it’s helped me develop,” Hayden said. “That’s something that’s definitely come a long way, but something I still need to work on.”
Like many young players in the Blackhawks’ system, Hayden could have had a chance to make the team this fall. But going back to school, leading his alma mater one more season and improving his game, loomed larger. The opportunity that was there in the fall is still here for Hayden, and now he’ll see what he can do with it.
“I don’t want to play one game in the NHL. I want to have a long career. I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve tried to look at the big picture the last few years and understand there’s definitely a development curve,” he said. “I think was beneficial to be at Yale for four years.”