By no means is Kyle Hayton being melodramatic when he says the first half of his senior season has been his toughest stretch in college hockey.
“I don’t think I’ve faced this much adversity as a player my whole college career,” the University of Wisconsin goaltender said.
The statistics agree with Hayton’s midseason self-assessment, and those results have him in a position where he’s expected to share playing time instead of being the star starter he was earlier in his career.
Goalies will tell you, however, they’re going down a disastrous path if they keep looking back at the shots that have already gone in instead of casting their eyes on the ones that are about to come.
Along those lines, Hayton used the Badgers’ three-week break as a reset point, where the struggles of the opening 11 weeks were dismissed and the focus was placed on what’s left.
He’s expected to start for the 18th-ranked Badgers in tonight’s opener of a series against Michigan State at the Kohl Center.
That he wasn’t the one chosen to play in UW’s first game back from its bye period last weekend, however, is a window into what has changed for Hayton since he became the Badgers’ first graduate transfer last offseason.
In three seasons at St. Lawrence, he started 104 of a possible 111 games, using that consistency of opportunity and a high volume of shots faced to forge a spot as one of the nation’s top collegiate goalies.
Some of those elements changed when he moved to UW.
“It’s just different,” Hayton said. “It’s a different team, a different style of play that I’m playing against. And it just takes time to get used to.”
At St. Lawrence, he faced an average of 31.57 shots per 60 minutes. In his time at UW, that average is lower by more than four shots, though he said he’s faced better quality chances.
Over his first three seasons, he allowed a goal every 15.12 shots. At UW, that pace has accelerated to every 9.43 shots.
Did he underestimate the amount of time it would take to adjust to a new situation?
“It definitely took longer,” Hayton said. “I was hoping to just jump right into it.”
He also was hoping to get right into the second half of the season, but Badgers coach Tony Granato chose sophomore Jack Berry to start last Friday at Penn State.
Hayton, however, was called on in relief that night and stopped all 17 shots he faced in a 5-1 loss. Back in the starting role the following night, he allowed three goals on 38 shots in a tie.
In explaining his goaltending choice last Friday, Granato said he thought Berry had showed a better rhythm as the first half closed.
How Hayton played in the five regulation periods and overtime in which he appeared last weekend now has Granato optimistic he turned a corner.
“If he can get into his rhythm now, that’s all that matters,” Granato said.
That was how Hayton became a top-level goalie at St. Lawrence, where last season he was a second-team All-American for the East Region.
“He was called upon day in and day out to just be the guy, and he just thrived in that scenario,” said Ryan Ess, a Minneapolis-based full-time goalie coach who has worked with Hayton for the past three years. “And I think when he steps on the ice he just needs to demand that position a little bit more and come out there and start stealing wins like he used to do for St. Lawrence.
“It’s more of a groove thing, probably, for him. I think once he catches his stride then I think that it’ll be lights-out for him. Because he can overcome and completely take over a game when he does catch that groove.”
While goal-scoring has been a sore spot in stretches, goaltending has been one of the most visible shortcomings for the Badgers, who are 4-8-3 since a 6-2 start to the season.
The Penn State game was the second time this season Berry was pulled from a start. Hayton was removed from a loss at Minnesota on Dec. 1 after he allowed five goals in less than two periods of work.
The team save percentage of .890 ranks 53rd of 60 teams nationally and is only marginally better than UW’s bottom-five rankings of the past two seasons.
Hayton has searched within himself for answers to the inconsistency he shared with the rest of the team in the first half.
He’s worked on ice with Badgers volunteer goalie coach Jeff Sanger and director of hockey operations Shane Connelly, a former UW goalie. He’ll also occasionally get video breakdowns from Ess, who has known him since Hayton was a junior at Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school in Minnesota.
Count Ess, whose nephew, Josh is a Badgers freshman defenseman, among those who see Hayton easily forgetting the troubles and keeping his head in the game.
“He’s got the mental makeup to do it,” Ess said. “It’s just a matter of him going out there and starting the snowball, basically.”