DALLAS — It’s difficult to say what the Arizona Coyotes liked more about Barrett Hayton: the player or the player’s position.
The latter definitely played a big role in why the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds centre was selected fifth overall in Friday night’s NHL Entry Draft.
Some would call it a surprise pick. Hayton was ranked outside the top 10 in most mock drafts. But like the Montreal Canadiens, who went off the board and selected Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the Coyotes also passed on high-profile winger Filip Zadina. Hayton, who was born in Kitchener, Ont., was the first Canadian selected in the draft.
“He’s a premium player and he plays a premium position,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “The draft is the only time when you can get these players.”
It was the first time since 1999 when the top Canadian in the draft fell outside the top three. Only two Canadians went into the top 10. Defenceman Evan Bouchard was taken by the Edmonton Oilers with the No. 10 pick.
“I haven’t really thought about it much yet, but that’s a tremendous honour for sure,” Hayton said of being the first Canadian picked. “I got a great feel from Arizona through the interview process. So I knew it was a chance. When I heard my name called, it was unbelievable.”
A playmaking centre, Hayton scored 21 goals and 60 points for a Greyhounds team that was deep up front. Chayka, a GM who puts a ton of stock in analytics, praised the 18-year-old’s athleticism and said his “underlying data is off the charts.”
“Our analysis is his offensive development would improve in another environment,” Chayka said. “When you look to build, it’s down the middle. We have a great pipeline of centres now.”
The Coyotes acquired Alex Galchenyuk from the Montreal Canadiens a week ago. They also drafted Dylan Strome with the third-overall pick in 2015 and saw 22-year-old Christian Dvorak put up back-to-back 15-goal seasons.
As the Washington Capitals showed this year, when a team with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller won the Stanley Cup, you can never have enough depth down the middle.
Still, not everyone was convinced that Montreal and Arizona made the right move in potentially valuing position over the best player available based on scouting consensus.
“I think it’s a reach,” said North American Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel, who had Kotkaniemi ranked fourth and Hayton ranked 24th overall. “I think it’s a team that’s desperate for centres taking one too early. I thought No. 5 was high for him.
“He’s going to be a 200-foot guy who’s going to get his share of goals. He’s good on draws, good defensively. He’s good, but doesn’t do anything excellent except for his shot.”
Hayton is one of the younger players in the draft — he turned 18 earlier this month — so he appears to be a bit of a project. While Zadina looks to be NHL-ready — he went to Detroit at No. 6 — Chayka said there is no rush on getting Hayton to the NHL.
When he does, Hayton plans on showing why he was selected so early.
“You never really know with drafts. But that was definitely my goal,” he said of going fifth overall to a Coyotes team that was led in scoring by 19-year-old rookie Clayton Keller. “I can’t lie — it’s the organization that I wanted to go to the most.”
Asked if he thinks his position played a part in him getting picked so early, Hayton didn’t disagree.
“That’s obviously a big thing in today’s game,” he said. “You look at the centres throughout the league. It’s a key position. I feel my ability to play a complete game, my versatility in all different situations is a big part of the player I am and teams value that.”
The fact that there were so few top-end centres in this year’s draft made the position even more valuable. Two centres went in the top 10 and seven were selected in the top 25, although as defencemen dominated the first round.
And yet, Chayka downplayed Hayton’s position.
“If we thought the best player was a winger, we would have taken a winger,” he said. “But we think he was the best player.”
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