Photo By: Seth Askelson
The center position is the most important skater group on any hockey team. They are the ultimate player, being asked to drive the offense, as well as being a defensive force in their own zone. Teams are always looking for the next elite center, and teams like the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins are lucky enough to have two.
The Arizona Coyotes have arguably not had an elite top line center since Jeremy Roenick left in free agency in the summer of 2001. It has been nearly 20 years of finding the top guy to drive the offense, and Arizona has put together great depth down the middle over the past three offseasons to leave hardly any questions about the position when fully healthy.
Two centers that will play a huge role in the team’s quest for the Cup come August 2 are on different ends of their respective careers. Derek Stepan has logged 739 regular season games over the past ten seasons, as well as 97 playoff games and an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. He will be looked upon as one of the veterans to help navigate the forward group when tough situations arise.
Barret Hayton on the other hand has played 719 less regular season games than Stepan, but will be counted upon to pitch in as a part of the young core. While Hayton has yet to play a postseason game in the NHL, he is no stranger to championship hockey.
As a star in the Ontario Hockey League, Hayton played 44 playoff games, including a trip to the OHL Finals in his draft year of 2018. He also captained Team Canada to the World Junior Championship gold medal back in January, leading the team in goals (6) and points (12). While the talent level of the NHL is vastly superiorthan in juniors, Hayton knows what it takes to compete at the highest level.
On the surface, Hayton has had a typical rookie year as he succeeded in his final juniors action and slowly found his way into a competing team’s lineup. But, Hayton made headlines when he suffered a separated shoulder in the World Juniors semifinal game against Finland and played through the injury in the gold medal game. He was hailed as a Canadian hero for toughing out through the pain, but there were questions around how and why he was allowed to be played in the final game of the tournament that sidelined him a little over a month when he returned to the Valley.
Hayton’s wild year continues as he will most likely travel with the Coyotes to the Edmonton bubble for the NHL restart. It is yet another interesting experience that enhances the story of his rookie season, and it is an opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup.
“I think being able to come full circle and get the opportunity to prepare for these playoffs, it’s a great opportunity,” Hayton said. “Obviously, this is where you always want to be. You want to be in the mix and preparing for that playoff stretch.”
Despite being a rookie heading into the most intense time of the year, Hayton has a lot of players to lean on in the center group. Brad Richardson was a key member in the Los Angeles Kings’ 2012 Stanley Cup run, and has played in a lot of crucial situations in his career.
Stepan will be a huge help as well, as the Minnesota native played in the Stanley Cup playoffs during each of his seven seasons with the New York Rangers.This year’s edition of the playoffs is a unique situation for everyone involved, but Stepan is expecting some level of what he saw during his postseason time in Manhattan.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” Stepan said. “The only thing I think we can expect is that it’s going to be a playoff style of hockey played. There’s so much aspect that we’ll be missing in the actual sense of the building, but the style of play should be very similar.”