Kevin Hayes has the hockey world on a string.
The 22-year-old winger is coming off an excellent senior season at Boston College, where he finished second in the country in scoring (27-38-65) and was honored as a 2014 Hobey Baker finalist. He has terrific size (6-foot-4, 216 pounds, according to his BC stats), quick feet and and a knack for the net. There are scouts who feel that he can step into the NHL next season and, over time, mature into a solid top-six forward.
And unlike most players his age, he has the rare luxury of picking where he wants to make that happen.
Hayes was a 2010 first-round choice by Chicago, and the Blackhawks would love to get him into the fold. But if they can't get his name on a contract by the fast approaching Aug. 15 deadline, he becomes a free agent who will be able to sign with any team.
It's an interesting spot for the kid. Does he commit to a leading Stanley Cup contender, but one whose incredible depth diminishes his chances of earning real minutes any time soon? Or does he hold out for an organization that he can grow with, one where the opportunity exists to skate in the NHL right away?
The fact that Chicago cleared some space with a couple of late-season deals and will be in need of some cap-friendly contracts makes sticking with the Hawks an attractive option. But rumors have been circulating for months that Hayes was leaning toward exploring the market, especially after the Hawks traded his older brother Jimmy to Florida in the Kris Versteeg deal. The chance to join Jimmy on the rebuilding Panthers might have some appeal. So could a reunion with his BC linemates Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold in Calgary.
And now, days after Hayes passed on attending Chicago's development camp, it appears that the Rangers have entered the picture. According to beat writer Larry Brooks, the Blueshirts are expected to be among a handful of finalists for Hayes' services if he ignores Chicago's overtures.
Brooks says Hayes, who is required to sign a two-year Entry Level deal no matter where he goes, “would have a shot to make the Rangers with a strong training camp,” adding that the Rangers “appear to have vacancies on their third and fourth lines.”
It makes sense for New York to be aggressive. After trading away their own first-round draft picks in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Hayes would help address a critical talent gap. And he has to like his chances to make an immediate impact on Broadway given the departure of bottom-six forwards Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot. The presence of a familiar face, former BC teammate Chris Kreider, presumably adds to the appeal.
The Rangers also rank as one of the few contenders with enough cap space to fit Hayes into their budget. He is limited by the CBA to a $900,000 max base salary, but is eligible for signing and performance bonuses that could elevate his compensation to $2.85 million. The Canadiens, who traditionally love American college-trained players and have a clear need for size up front, might also be able to make something work, as could the Avalanche, Wild and Sharks.
But until Aug. 15th, the Hawks still hold the hammer ... even if their grip is weakened by cap concerns of their own. No doubt GM Stan Bowman will exhaust his options to get Hayes under contract, but failure won't leave him empty handed. It's conceivable that he could trade Hayes' negotiating rights for a prospect. Barring that, he could let Hayes sign elsewhere and accept the 54th pick in the 2015 draft from the NHL as compensation.
That might be the best option available to the Blackhawks if Hayes is committed to finding the best option available to him.