Yale’s Hayden makes smart move to join Hawks, pass on free agency

John Hayden could’ve taken the same path that landed Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey on the Rangers.

Instead, the 6-3, 217-pound power forward from Yale is eager to begin his career with the Blackhawks, who selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft. Hayden, 22, joined the Hawks on Monday at the United Center, a day after signing a two-year contract, and is expected to make his debut this week.

“I’ve been following the team all year,” Hayden said. “Any kid wants to be here, and I’ve been working hard for this. I owe all my [Yale]teammates and coaches and family and friends all the credit in the world. They’ve been pretty supportive, so it’s surreal, and I’m excited to get started.”

That’s a different outlook compared to Hayes and Vesey after their college careers ended in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Neither signed with the teams that drafted them — Hayes was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft by the Hawks.

John Hayden (21) is 6-3, 217 pounds and plays a physical game. Coach Joel Quenneville says the Blackhawks don’t have a lot of guys who play that way. | Rick Scuteri/AP

Each wound up with the Rangers after using the “four-year rule” of the NHL’s collective-bargaining agreement to become free agents. The rule requires teams to sign their picks within four years of drafting them. Hayden could’ve used it, too, had he waited until Aug. 15 without signing.

“There was never a doubt since I was drafted that this is where I would sign,” Hayden said emphatically. “It’s such a first-class organization, and there’s a winning culture here. I’m very excited to learn from the staff and, obviously, the leadership [group] here.”

Hayden was Yale’s captain this season and played right wing. He had career highs in goals (21), assists (13) and points (34) and was named a candidate for the 2017 Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s MVP.

Now he’ll get a chance to battle for a bottom-six role among Hawks forwards, likely debuting Thursday in Ottawa. Coach Joel Quenneville said Hayden could also play Saturday in Toronto.

“Playing the way he plays, I think that helps him,” Quenne-ville said, citing Hayden’s size and physical style. “We don’t have a lot of guys who play that way, so it could be a nice fit for both of us, and we’re looking forward to seeing how he handles it.”

Quenneville also is eager to see how other Hawks forwards handle his presence. Five are vying for two open bottom-six spots each game.

“That can be good, and it can be negative,” Quenneville said. “I find that the guys who don’t play on a regular basis are equally important to the chemistry around your team, and their attitudes are very important to the health of your team, as far as knowing there’s support by these guys.

“We don’t expect you to be happy not playing, but let’s make sure when you’re around here, you’re a good teammate and you’re pushing and working in practice, and off the ice, to make sure that you’re good and ready to come in and help out.”

Follow me on Twitter @BrianHedger.


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