Roster math, not performance, could decide John Hayden’s fate

There’s something different about Blackhawks center John Hayden this fall. Oh, he’s still impressive on the ice — a big guy with that mix of physicality and skill that coach Joel Quenneville craves — but his off-ice demeanor has changed.

He speaks more confidently, the nervous catch in his voice gone. He’s familiar with all the twists and turns and nooks and crannies of the United Center. He knows all of the team’s support staff by name.

“It’s night and day,” he said.

Hayden looks, and sounds, like an NHL player. The question is, will he be one on opening night?

John Hayden battles for the puck with Los Angeles' Brayden McNabb on April 8. (AP Photo)

“I didn’t play a full season in the NHL, but I got a taste of it,” Hayden said. “This is where I want to be, and I think I belong here. It’s my job to prove the next couple of weeks that I belong here.”

To see Hayden on the ice, and to hear Quenneville rave about him, he seems like a lock for a roster spot. But it might not be so simple. Because of the intricacies of long-term injured reserve, Marian Hossa — who will sit out the season because of a skin condition — will be on the roster when camp breaks. Hossa will then be moved to LTIR, which will open up one measly spot for Hayden and forwards Alex DeBrincat and Vinnie Hinostroza to fight over. That’s assuming the Hawks are unwilling to waive one of their lower-tier veterans on one-way contracts, such as Tomas Jurco or Jordin Tootoo.

So with DeBrincat currently raising eyebrows while skating on Patrick Kane’s line, Hayden is very much in limbo. He skated with Lance Bouma and Tanner Kero on the fourth line with the Hawks’ primary group at training camp Monday. And he’d be an ideal fit with Ryan Hartman and Artem Anisimov on the third line if DeBrincat is sent to Rockford and Patrick Sharp is bumped up to Kane’s line.

Hayden burned the first year of his two-year entry-level contract by going straight from Yale to the Hawks last spring. In 12 games, he had a goal and three assists, and he played in one playoff game against the Predators.

“There are a lot of guys looking for jobs,” Quenneville said. “There’s a little uncertainty of who’s going to be here. . . . He came in last year and started strong. Nice to see him have a nice offseason, because he showed how bad he wants to be here. I just think he gives us an ingredient, playing like that, that you appreciate.”

Hayden said he’s far more confident now than he was last March. He still remembers the nerves he felt when his teammates sent him out for a solo lap before warmups in Ottawa, and the awe he felt when he looked across the ice and saw Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson. It’s no longer mind-blowing that he’s on the same team as Kane and Jonathan Toews, no longer a novelty to think of himself as a professional hockey player. And he doesn’t have to worry about school anymore, having graduated from Yale in May. He even finally has a helmet that fits.

“I’m completely past all that,” Hayden said. “It’s a business now. It’s my job to come out here and be one of the guys.”

Hockey “has been the priority for a long time now,” Hayden said. But instead of cramming for tests in his down time, he can now hang put with the other young players living in a downtown hotel while he waits for the Hawks’ permission to get a place of his own — the ultimate sign a player has made it.

“Last year was more about learning different plays, different times of the games, and understanding how fast it is and how guys will capitalize on mistakes,” Hayden said. “I’m just going to play the same game I did in college. I don’t have to change much. It’s still the same hard-nosed game.”

Just the way Quenneville likes it. It’s just a matter of whether he can make the roster math work.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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