Right winger Kevin Hayes has bid adieu to one of the league’s strongest franchise and signed instead with the New York Rangers. The deal is a two-way contract, as per CBA guidelines for entry-level contracts, and is expected to be worth the rookie maximum salary if he makes the NHL.
The Modus operandi was all about getting to the NHL sooner for the Boston-area native. The Hayes watch has been on high alert since the NCAA graduate rebuffed the Chicago Blackhawks and became a free agent Aug. 15. Social media has been abuzz this week speculating where Hayes may sign. At one point today, the Kevin Hayes Wikipedia page showed him a member of the Colorado Avalanche. The next minute he was a Ranger. Then he was a free agent again as rational heads prevailed leading up to his announcement.
Some wondered, tongue in cheek, if his Hall of Fame announcement would precede his NHL destination of choice.
So how good is this Kevin Hayes?
Hayes was drafted in the first round, 24th overall by Chicago, in 2010. If that draft were to be re-held today, Hayes probably wouldn’t go in the first round. More than likely, he’d be a second round pick. At least 25 players from the 2010 have established themselves as NHL regulars and, according to our Future Watch scouting committee, at least 15 other players drafted in 2010 rank as better prospects than Hayes.
But that doesn't mean Hayes can't play catch-up with those other 2010 draftees in the seasons to come. He does have compelling credentials. After three middling seasons at Boston College, in which the budding power forward scored just 17 goals and 67 points in 102 games, he blossomed as a senior. Playing on a line with Hobey Baker Award winner Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold – both draft picks of the Calgary Flames, one of many teams vying for his services once he became a free agent – Hayes used his size and playmaking ability to an impressive 27 goals and 65 points in 40 games.
Some observers credit the magic hands of Gaudreau for boosting Hayes’ statistics. It should also be pointed out Arnold was regarded as the best two-way center in the NCAA last season and that enabled Hayes to focus on his offense. Others say Hayes’ size and potential as an offensive threat helped open up the ice for Gaudreau to have the best individual season in U.S. college hockey in the past 20 years.
Considering the trio formed the best line in NCAA hockey in many years, it’s safe to say all of the above were contributing factors.
The knock on 6-foot-4, 216-pound Hayes is he’s more of a plodding skater. As the game gets quicker at the next levels, is he going to be able to keep up? Scouts have said it’s probably best for him to transition his game and foot speed in the American League until it approaches average NHL standards. But at 22 and now four years removed from being taken in the first round, it's understandable Hayes would prefer a fast track to the big league rather than apprentice in the AHL until he’s 24 or 25.
That surely would have been the case in Chicago, where Hayes ranked no higher than eighth on the Blackhawks depth chart of right wingers – Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg and Ben Smith in the NHL, and Ryan Hartman, Mark McNeill and Jeremy Morin at the development level. That’s why Hayes sought the option to not sign with the Blackhawks following his college career and declare himself a free agent, the way Anaheim pick Justin Schultz did in 2012, signing with Edmonton instead.
As compensation for not being able to sign Hayes, the Blackhawks receive the 24th pick in the second round of the 2015 draft. That pick next June comes from the NHL, not the Rangers.
With reports Hayes wasn’t going to sign with the Hawks, it was speculated Chicago might trade him at the 2014 draft. But potential suitors weren’t willing to offer a high second round pick just for the right to negotiate with him. The Hawks wouldn’t accept anything less than a second-rounder because that's what they're guaranteed under this scenario that just unfolded.
So where does Hayes sit on the New York depth chart?
The Rangers have Martin St-Louis, Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and Lee Stempniak on the right wing. Hayes is a left shot and could be moved to that wing in New York. The Rangers have Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Tanner Glass and Matthew Lombardi on the left wing. Among top 10 prospects, the Rangers have Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo on the right side and Anthony Duclair on the left side.
How soon can he make the NHL? That will be one storyline to follow in the coming 2014-15 season.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN