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Clock ticking on Kevin Hayes' free agency decision

College phenom Kevin Hayes was drafted 24th by the Blackhawks in 2010, but they will lose his signing rights at midnight on August 15. Photo: Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

College phenom Kevin Hayes was drafted 24th by the Blackhawks in 2010, but they will lose his signing rights at midnight on August 15.

UPDATE: The Chicago Blackhawks issued the following statement regarding Hayes at 5:30 this afternoon:

“We offered Kevin what we believed was a generous and fair contract. Unfortunately, he felt it was in his best interests to become a free agent. We are looking forward to the compensatory draft pick we are receiving and are focused on the excitement surrounding the start of training camp next month.”

Per the National Hockey League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement Article 8.3(b), the Blackhawks will receive a second-round pick (54th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft.

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In just a matter of hours, Kevin Hayes will make the biggest decision of his life.

That's a lot of pressure on a 22-year-old kid ... but he almost can't screw it up.

Hayes, who emerged as one of the top players in college hockey last season after scoring 27 goals and 65 points in 40 games for Boston College, becomes a free agent at midnight tonight if he doesn't first sign a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that drafted him 24th back in 2010. And that, by all accounts, isn't happening.

Most players would jump at the chance to play for a well-managed, Stanley Cup-contending franchise like Chicago. But Hayes is looking to do more than languish in the minors the way his brother, Jimmy, did for most of his three-year tenure with the organization. And with the Hawks stacked at right wing-—Kevin has Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg and Ben Smith ahead of him-—his chances of earning top-nine minutes with the big club are slim.

So he's taking advantage of a CBA loophole to gain free agency and pick his spot. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of suitors for a player who finally figured out as a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound senior that the shortest path to the net is through defenders, rather than around them.

In Calgary, Flames GM Brad Treliving is carefully toeing the line between proclaiming his team is in the running for Hayes and picking up a tampering fine. ”I've heard that natural assumption for a while,” Treliving said of the possibility of reuniting Hayes with his BC linemates Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold in Calgary. “I see where people would make the connection. But at this point, we can’t talk about it.”

But no doubt he's thinking about it. And so is Hayes. The BC trio combined to form the most dynamic and dangerous line in college hockey, combining for 54 goals and 124 points in the 26 games they played together after December 6. A lot of that success was driven by Gaudreau, who was far and away the best player in the nation, but there's no denying the natural chemistry that the three of them shared.

There's no guarantee that the three would play together in the pros, or that they could rekindle even a sliver of the same magic while they try to find their way in the NHL against bigger, stronger men. But the thought of reuniting the creativity of Gaudreau, the two-way excellence of Arnold, and the bullish intensity of Hayes has to be very appealing to both sides.

And it's not just the chance to play with friendly faces that makes the Flames the leading contender to land Hayes. It's opportunity. If the lack of a quick path to the NHL is what killed Chicago's chances to sign Hayes, then Calgary's whisper of depth on the right side makes them the front runner. After Jiri Hudler, the Flames are sending out Joe Colborne, David Jones and Brian McGrattan to man the starboard side. That's one of the weakest groups in the league. There are no guarantees that Hayes beats out any of them in camp, but he has to like his odds.

And Calgary is not his only option. Mark Divver of the Providence Journal lists the Avalanche, Rangers, Bruins and Coyotes as the other clubs that are interested in adding the big winger.

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Boston makes a lot of sense. Hayes is a local boy who grew up in Dorchester cheering for the B's. He plays a position where the Bruins, who have lost Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla to free agency in successive summers, have an immediate opening. Boston also needs cap-friendly players and they Bruins have had success signing and giving opportunities to college free agents (Torey Krug being the most recent example).

The Rangers are desperate to improve their forward depth after losing several key players (Ryan Callahan, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle) during the past few months, and they boast another familiar face: Chris Kreider, with whom Hayes played early in his Boston College career. But the Rangers are almost as stacked as the Hawks on the right side with Marty St. Louis, Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash and the recently acquired Lee Stempniak on the roster, so Hayes would have to consider the likelihood of spending some time, maybe a lot of time, in Hartford before he gets a real NHL shot.

The Avs are heavy on young players and on the fast track to Cup contention, and they have a clear need for right wings. After Iginla and Daniel Briere, they're trotting out Patrick Bordeleau and Max Talbot, so the opportunity to grab an immediate roster spot is there. And they can sell the chance to play with either Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene or (possibly) Ryan O'Reilly.

The Coyotes couldn't match that, but they do offer a fast pass to the NHL. Beyond captain Shane Doan, they're trotting out a lackluster group that includes B.J. Crombeen, David Moss and Alexandre Bolduc. One of their top prospects, 2012 first rounder Henrik Samuelsson, will get a long look out of camp, but Hayes' age and experience could give him an edge.

Florida, another team that loves playing the NCAA free agent market, offers him a chance to play with his brother Jimmy. But he'd also be competing with Jimmy for a job and that could lead the younger Hayes elsewhere. The Sharks, who've had an embarrassingly quiet offseason in the wake of their historic first-round playoff ouster, and could use another right wing after sliding Brent Burns back to the blueline, are another darkhorse candidate.

With so many choices it's going to be a tough call, but it's one that Hayes has waited long enough to make. We should know his choice by early Saturday.

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