Tomorrow is Aug. 16, and many Blackhawk fans know all too well what that means.
In yet another case of something that happens every once in a while (though perhaps not as often as one might expect), a former college player has decided he doesn't want to play for the team that drafted him, and will instead hit the open market if that club cannot sign him before the end of Aug. 15.
There have been a lot of reasons for this decision by Hayes advanced, and a few of them sound fairly credible. He's a right wing, for one thing, and the Blackhawks have more than enough help on that side between Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Kris Versteeg, and Ben Smith. Further, Chicago had previously drafted Hayes's older brother Jimmy (a Toronto second-rounder) who spent a few seasons toiling in the Blackhawks system, not really getting a prolonged shot at the NHL, before being traded to Florida last season. Depending upon whom you believe, the divorce might not have been that amicable.
There's also the matter of Kevin Hayes probably feeling like he deserves at least a half-decent shot at the NHL, given that he torched college hockey for 65 points in 40 games this past season, playing alongside Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau, who had the single most impressive college season since Paul Kariya put up 100 points in 39 games in the early 1990s.
Hayes, in fact, should have been a Hobey finalist along with his linemate, because his 65 points were second only to Gaudreau's in the whole country, but for the Western contingent of college hockey voters having a hard-on for now-Kings prospect Nic Dowd, who had 25 fewer points than Hayes.
The Blackhawks, though, weren't going to give him that shot, because of the depth reasons listed above, and because they're already in a bit of a cap crunch (insofar as they're already over the limit). And so it was that Hayes has always appeared likely to try to move on to another team by simply waiting out the CBA's signing period for graduated college players. The reports basically all summer out of Chicago have screamed, “This kid isn't signing here.”
So the question becomes which team is likely to sign him, and obviously it's tough to nail down the answer.
The long-running favorite in the minds of many is Calgary, which long ago drafted and this spring signed both of Hayes's linemates, Gaudreau and center Bill Arnold. Hayes has, in the past, called the two players his best friends.
It's difficult to put into words just how badly these three players, playing together for the vast majority of this past season, torched college hockey. The stats themselves tell a pretty simple story: In the 26 of BC's 40 games they played as linemates, the three combined for 54-70-124. Absolutely ludicrous production from three guys who were probably in the top six players in all of college hockey last season. And the thing is, it would be easy to dismiss any of their production as being the result of Gaudreau simply being awe-inspiring (he is), but they actually worked exceptionally well together overall.
Gaudreau was certainly the creative dynamo who could do things no one else could. Arnold was the steadfast rock of two-way hockey who enabled the free-wheeling style of his two linemates. And Hayes used a completely revamped game — following a career-threatening injury at the end of 2012-13 that required a few surgeries — to be the real skull-cracker of the set, not with simple physical hockey, but because he just skated at teams and then went through them and scored.
In fact, another reason Hayes wasn't a Hobey finalist was because of the impression among those who didn't see BC very often was that his scoring this season was Gaudreau-driven. And while playing with the best player in NCAA hockey over the last two decades or so doesn't hurt, those who saw Hayes a lot last year — for me, it was 15 times live — know that wasn't the case. Even before they were put together on Dec. 6, Hayes put up a “mere” 21 points in 14 games by lugging inferior linemates to success. Thus, with Gaudreau, his points per game went up by just 0.19, a little less than 13 percent. Point being: He was a star no matter who he played with.
This misconception probably comes from Hayes having only posted 67 points in his career prior to this past season, in 102 games. Nearly doubling your career output in a single season usually draws out the doubters, but the numbers suggest he wasn't lucky, and the actual game-watching suggests he wasn't merely a product of Gaudreau. The improvement came because he realized that at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he didn't have to try to finesse his way around guys who were as much as three or four years older than him. That was youthful hubris; he brought so much skill to the table as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, that he thought it was all he needed to rely on.
I don't know what it says about a player who needs three years, and some disciplinary problems, to get his head on straight and realize he can just bully opposing players. But Hayes got there eventually, and in doing so succeeded on an absurd level. He knows he can go through anyone based on his high skill level and physical size.
He's also pretty safe in his own zone, and in fact was deployed as a defenseman for a time earlier in his college career, when BC simply ran out of healthy bodies to put on the blue line. He didn't expose himself too badly there. One thing he's not, however, is suited to play an “energy” role. He's big and he can throw the body around if need be, but that's not his game and asking him to play it is a misuse of talent. In short, he's a big, heavy, high-scoring, 22-year-old left-shot right wing (and occasional defenseman) who can take a draw if needed, who isn't afraid to play physical, who has the upside to play in the top-six. There should be a line of teams around the block for him.
And all that sounds like Calgary is the most ideal scenario for Hayes, who as a right wing would probably be able to slot in very nicely indeed with the Flames' NHL depth down that side. Their current No. 2 natural right winger — i.e. not a guy converted from the left side — is Brian McGrattan, and no, that's not a typo.
The thing with signing college free agents is that even if they don't become NHL players they're a way to stock your AHL club with players without giving up any other assets of note. Sometimes, teams will even trade guys who are unlikely to sign to teams to which they might be more amenable in exchange for something as simple as a late-round pick, because at least then you're getting something back. Most recently, Calgary did this with borderline NHLer Corban Knight, who didn't want to play for the Panthers after a four-year career at North Dakota.
As a result, other teams have emerged as suitors as well, as you might expect. We've heard rumors that the New York Rangers are considered a possible landing spot, and that makes sense. For one thing, Hayes played with Chris Kreider early in his Boston College career, and for another, the cash-rich Rangers love dipping into the college free agent pool whenever possible (they most notably added Union defenseman Mat Bodie, Vermont two-way star Chris McCarthy, and RPI scorer Ryan Haggerty this year alone). Hayes would be another great addition in Hartford, if nothing else.
Then there's the Boston Bruins, themselves no strangers to signing college kids (Michigan State's Torey Krug is probably the recent poster boy, but getting Minnesota's Blake Wheeler after he refused to sign with Phoenix is another, more applicable example). Hayes played for Boston College. He grew up in Dorchester, cheering for the Bruins. The storyline-related fit is natural, even if the hockey one is square peg in a kind-of-rectangular hole.
Then there's the idea that Florida, also not-inactive on the NCAA free agent market, would be in the conversation because they're the team that has his brother. And they don't have the best right wing group in the world either.
It also wouldn't be shocking to see a few other teams make a go of it, like San Jose or Minnesota or Tampa, all of which are quite practiced at signing college free agents with a certain amount of glee. But whichever team gets him, they're getting a prospect of good quality who seems capable of contributing at the NHL level, in some way, right this second. For a lot of teams, he'd probably jump right into their organizational top-five or so.
Were I a betting man, though, I'd push a lot of money onto the “Calgary” option, because it really does seem like the best fit.