The identity of the NHL has changed radically over the past 15 years. Since the 2004-05 Lockout, its style has evolved from rugged toughness to high-flying finesse. As a result, grit and physicality were waived from the standard NHL player criteria in favor of skill and speed and the players who embodied the former have become increasingly obsolete ever since.
That’s what makes a player like John Hayden such an interesting case in the NHL of 2022. The Ivy League graduate is as close to an “old school” hockey player as one could get in today’s game. His highlight reels don’t feature much scoring or playmaking but rather hits and fights. He embodies a style of play that would have made him a superstar in the 1990s, yet in 2022, he hardly gets noticed.
Hayden Was an Expendable Signing for the Sabres
Make no mistake about it, the Buffalo Sabres didn’t see Hayden as much more than a filler when they signed him to a one-year, NHL minimum $750,000 deal in July 2021. After numerous players walked away that summer, the team needed to replenish its roster and he was a cheap option (from “Sabres sign bruising winger John Hayden to a one-year deal worth $750,00”, The Buffalo News, 7/30/21). Big things were certainly not expected of him but the Sabres knew he could add a physical presence that the team has badly missed in recent seasons and help fill out the bottom six in the process. The Chicago native delivered as advertised, recording just two goals and two assists in 55 games but wracking up 84 penalty minutes despite battling COVID.
If one looked at those numbers alone, it would seem that Hayden is fairly dispensable. But as is often the case with lesser-known players, deeper examination is needed. The truth of the matter is that he contributed quite a bit to the Sabres this year, just not in ways that younger hockey fans may be used to seeing (from “A different type of player’: Sabres turn to John Hayden for versatility, size and a missing ‘physical edge’, The Athletic, 10/22/21).
Hayden Was Buffalo’s DeFacto Enforcer
Is the rough stuff not part of hockey’s DNA anymore? It’s a question that’s been asked more and more in recent years. Fans scarcely see big hits and fights anymore, so much so that two players dropping their gloves and squaring off may seem entirely out of place. But that’s exactly what Hayden was brought to the Sabres to do.
The Yale product had numerous fights over the course of the season, sometimes to provide his team with a spark but usually in response to liberties that were taken with his teammates. This essentially made him the unofficial enforcer for the Sabres in 2021-22. The best example of this came in November against one of the NHL’s most imposing figures, Jamie Oleksiak.
The Sabres made their first trip to Seattle in team history on Nov. 4 to play the Kraken for the first time. In the historic meeting, Oleksiak laid a massive hit on Zemgus Girgensons, Buffalo’s longest-tenured player. Despite being four inches shorter than him, Hayden stood up to the Big Rig and challenged him on his next shift. He may not have fared very well in the ensuing tussle, but it didn’t matter. An old-time hockey type of message was sent – if you mess with one of our guys, you pay the price. If Hayden wasn’t admired by his teammates beforehand, he certainly was afterward.
Sabres Should Absolutely Re-Sign Hayden
Though he’s far from the flashiest player on the ice and rarely contributes on the score sheet, Hayden’s style of play should earn him the respect of all Sabres fans. What he lacks in ability, he more than makes up for in effort and determination, as he was a major unsung hero this season. It’s tough to not appreciate a player who puts himself on the line and gives his all for his team, and in the purest sense, no one did that for the Sabres more than he did in 2021-22.
The Sabres have more than enough financial leeway to re-sign the 27-year-old this summer and they should do just that. After all, players who bring character to a team are just as important as big scorers. The team would be far better off going forward with another positive locker room presence akin to Girgensons and Kyle Okposo. One could argue all day that fighting has no place in hockey any more, but every team needs a player like Hayden.
Hayden’s Grade for 2021-22: A