It's been exactly one month to the day since Barrett Hayton last played in a live hockey game.
One month since he wired home the game-tying goal in Team Canada's come-from-behind victory over Russia to win gold medal at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Tonight, he'll return to a game setting to play for the Tucson Roadrunners as he begins a conditioning assignment with the Coyotes' American Hockey League affiliate, another step forward in his journey back to the NHL roster.
"Obviously, he had an amazing world juniors and we were hoping that he could come back and build off that, get back in the lineup and start playing for us, but unfortunately he's had the injury that's kept him out," said Roadrunners General Manager and Coyotes Assistant General Manager Steve Sullivan.
Hayton suffered an upper-body injury in the World Junior Championship semi-final against Finland after crashing into the end-boards. He has been practicing with the Coyotes since the team returned from the All-Star break.
The 19-year-old first round selection from the 2018 NHL Draft finished second in scoring among all players at the World Junior Championship, totaling 12 points (6G, 6A) in seven games. He's registered four points (1G, 3A) in 14 games with the Coyotes this season, including his first-career NHL goal, the game-winner, in the Coyotes' 5-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils on October 25.
Video: ARI@NJD: Hayton taps in first career NHL goal
"He's been on the ice practicing, but obviously there's a tender area where he had to minimize how much contact he could take for a long time, but he's progressed through it," Sullivan said. "We wouldn't be sending him down if we didn't think he was ready for game action, so we're looking forward to getting him back going."
The objective is for Hayton to get his reps in and get his game legs back.
Typically, conditioning assignments last a span of two weeks, but since Hayton is technically still on long-term injured reserve, he is limited to three games and six days of action at the AHL level.
The Roadrunners have three games scheduled in the next four days.
"He gets to go down for this week and we'll reassess after those three games," said Sullivan. "If we think he's ready to come back up we'll bring him back up, if we don't think he's ready, if we think he needs more time, then we'll have to apply for an extension, and we'll have to see what the league says about that."
Wearing #22 for the Roadrunners, Hayton will sport the same number Conor Garland donned during his pro rookie season with the Roadrunners in 2016-17, and Jason Demers , who played in one conditioning game with Tucson last year.
Hayton will be playing in an orderly system that's been applied throughout the organization. Same style, same role, same strategic pillars. Roadrunners head coach Jay Varady, along with the rest of his coaching staff, instruct on the same foundation as Rick Tocchet and his personnel do at the NHL level.
"The identity is exactly the same, so he's going to go down there and feel very comfortable playing knowing that we play the exact same way here," Sullivan said. "He doesn't need to so much worry about figuring out systems or how he's supposed to play, it'll be very natural for him, so all he really has to do is worry about getting back into shape and get his game legs going."
He'll also be playing for a first-place Roadrunners team, that after its unbelievably torrid start, is looking for a spark to rebound from its current 0-3-0-1 stretch.
"They've been struggling of late, not having the best last 10-game segment that we've had this year, so it's going to be great for Barrett to go down there, it's going to be a win-win," Sullivan added. "While it'll be great for Barrett to go down to get himself ready for a return here, it gives the players down there an opportunity to get re-energized with a new player coming into the lineup to instill some energy."
A shot in the arm, if you will. He'll look to provide that boost as the Roadrunners take on the Bakersfield Condors tonight to begin a season-long seven-game road trip.
"Barrett's going to want to be flying around the ice and showing his best," Sullivan said, excitedly. "He's going to give his best effort, so I think it's perfect timing for everyone."
Photo Credit [All]: Kevin Anggara - Arizona Coyotes