It's all but certain that former Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick Kevin Hayes is not going to sign with the club by the Aug. 15 deadline and will become an unrestricted free agent the following day. Hayes' agent told Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com that his client will likely wait to sign his first NHL contract until Aug. 16.
"We're likely going to wait until Aug. 16 and see where things are at that point," agent Robert Murray said. "It's absolutely nothing against the Blackhawks. We just feel this gives Kevin some options.
"This has been a difficult decision for Kevin. He's identified himself with the Blackhawks. He was drafted by them. His brother [Jimmy] played for them. But after his college career, he had a chance to step back and look at everything."
After the Blackhawks failed to sign Hayes after his senior season concluded at Boston College, it seemed less and less likely the club would be able to strike a deal with the 22-year-old they drafted 24th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Hayes enjoyed a stellar senior season at BC, finishing second in the country with 65 points.
Considering the Blackhawks' depth at both the NHL level and in the minors, there is a crowded field for Hayes to fight through. By not signing with the team, he gives himself the chance to find a more favorable situation for his NHL arrival timeline.
Once the clock strikes midnight on Aug. 16, Hayes will be able to negotiate with any of the 30 NHL teams that have interest in him. This is the path previously trodden by the likes of Blake Wheeler, currently of the Winnipeg Jets, and Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers. Both are among the most notable players to avoid signing with the team that drafted them in search of greener pastures on the free agent market.
A team has four years to sign a player after his draft should he remain in college for that period of time. If they don't, the player can become a free agent. If Hayes does not sign with Chicago, the team would receive a compensatory second-round NHL Draft pick.
Multiple teams are reported to have interest in Hayes, who comes in at 6-foot-3 and 204 pounds. Drafted as a center, Hayes played primarily on the wing last season. He is only eligible to be signed to a maximum contract under the entry-level system, meaning Hayes' base salary cannot exceed $925,000, though he would be eligible to receive bonuses.
Hayes is an attractive free agent option for teams on a number of fronts. For clubs like the Rangers, Penguins and Bruins, their salary cap situation forces them to look at cheap options that could help the NHL roster as early as next season. All of those teams also are lacking depth at forward in their prospect systems currently. For the Avalanche, their prospect system is growing sparse and Hayes could fit into their plans as a young, affordable player with capability to bounce between the AHL and NHL.
There's also the belief that Hayes would draw interest from the Calgary Flames due to the fact that the club recently signed Hayes' linemates from BC, Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau and center Bill Arnold. Both were Flames draft picks as well, but are also close friends with Hayes.
Additionally, the Florida Panthers have been connected to Hayes as the club also has Kevin's older brother Jimmy Hayes on their NHL roster. Elliotte Friedman recently reported that the Panthers may not go after Hayes, though. They do have a rather full prospect system at the moment. The Panthers just avoided an arbitration hearing with Jimmy Hayes on Monday, having re-signed the big forward to a new one-year deal.
What Kevin Hayes has now is options. He could pick a team that offers him the best deal or he could go wherever has space for him to compete for a spot on the NHL roster next season. Either way, after his 27-goal, 65-point performance last season, a lot of teams would be happy to add Hayes to see what he can do at the next level.