Former Blackhawks top pick Kevin Hayes could be free agent soon

If Kevin Hayes doesn't sign with the Blackhawks, he'll be a free agent. (USATSI)
If Kevin Hayes doesn't sign with the Blackhawks, he'll be a free agent. (Getty Images)

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Kevin Hayes was selected 24th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Over the next four years, he spent time developing at one of the top programs in the country in Boston College. All the while, the Blackhawks were holding onto his rights, letting him continue to develop at his own pace and he really did need all four years at school.

But over those four years, things have changed. The Blackhawks have been stripped down and rebuilt after a costly 2010 Stanley Cup run that created salary cap havoc. They continued to create a strong roster through free agency, trades and drafted well, which resulted in a good team that’s built to last. So where does a prospect like Hayes fit in? 

He might not fit at all as he has yet to sign his entry-level contract. After skipping Blackhawks prospect camp, he may not sign at all, the negotiations with Chicago have been ongoing this summer according to ESPN Chicago. If he did sign with Chicago, Hayes gets his normal entry-level deal and he enters into a deep pool of prospects that already have a deep group of NHL forwards ahead of them on the depth chart.

He has another option, though, and this one seems more likely at this stage of the game.

The collective bargaining agreement gives an NHL team four years to a sign a player, so long as he remains a college student over that period of time. By the time the player is no longer a college student, the team has to sign him by 11:59 p.m. ET on Aug. 15 that same offseason. Failng that, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.

That means in less than a month, should Hayes choose not to sign with the Blackhawks, he will be eligible to sign a max entry-level contract with any team that offers him with enough contracts to spare under the limit of 50. He would would be able to command a base salary of around $925,000 per season plus bonuses under the entry-level system. Whichever team wins his services, including the Blackhawks, is likely going to have to dole out that max ELC, unless he's willing to take a cut in favor of a guaranteed NHL role.

With the senior season Hayes put together in 2013-14 and the affordability of the new contract, he should have quite a few suitors. And should he sign elsewhere, Chicago would get a compensatory second-round draft pick.

Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers and Blake Wheeler are among the players that didn’t sign with the teams that drafted them and instead were able to essentially pick wherever they wanted to go. Schultz went to the Oilers after spurning the Anaheim Ducks, while Wheeler landed with the Boston Bruins after turning down the Phoenix Coyotes, which picked him fourth overall in 2004 (ouch.)

Hayes may not end up triggering the recruiting battle that those have gone before him would, but teams are interested outside of Chicago. They can’t be terribly public about that pursuit however as Hayes is still technically property of the Blackhawks until Aug. 15.

According to the New York Post, however, one of the teams that will go after Hayes should he hit the open market as expected is the New York Rangers.

From Larry Brooks:

The Rangers have targeted pending free-agent winger Kevin Hayes, the 22-year-old Boston College graduate who was selected 24th overall by the Blackhawks in the 2010 Entry Draft, but who will be eligible to hit the open market on Aug. 16 if he does not sign with Chicago by Aug. 15, The Post has learned.

Hayes, who is continuing to negotiate with the Blackhawks, is expected to be pursued by numerous NHL clubs. Several industry sources report they believe the Rangers will be among a handful of finalists in the bidding for the 6-foot-3, 205-pound left-handed shooting right wing, who played two seasons with Chris Kreider, should he become a free agent.

It’s no surprise that New York would want to get involved as they don’t have much cap space to make deals and they haven’t had a first-round draft pick the last two drafts, nor do they have one in 2015. Getting a player of Hayes’ caliber on an entry-level deal could give them some flexibility and help mitigate a shallow prospect pool due to the lack of prospects.

So why will teams be hard after this 22-year-old winger?

Hayes was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award last season as college hockey’s MVP. He finished second in the country with 65 points to linemate and friend Johnny Gaudreau, who took home the Hobey. His 27 goals ranked fifth in the country.

Hayes, who can also play at center, has NHL size at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds and plays the game fast. He showed improved skill over the last two seasons and was invited to participate in the IIHF Men’s World Championship for Team USA this year. While there, he got his first taste of playing against pro players in a live game. In eight appearances he had two points and averaged over 10 minutes of ice time per game.

There’s a lot to like about the youngster who made the jump from prep school straight to college the year after he was drafted, but the question is going to be how many teams get into the mix and if he’ll be able to find the right fit. Also, it’s somewhat uncertain what the right fit would entail. It may mean picking a team that gets him to the NHL the fastest, but based on his play at the World Championship, it's unclear if he's quite ready for that kind of responsibility.

A number of teams stand out as potential destinations, however.

The Rangers certainly would be attractive due to their cap situation.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bruins get involved in trying to attract the Dorchester, Mass., native to the hometown team. They also have a dire salary cap situation and need good players on cheap deals to potentially get some spot duty as early as this season. There’s even been talk of first-round pick David Pastrnak pushing for a spot next year, but that may be more out of cap necessity than actual pro readiness. Bringing in the possibly more ready Hayes wouldn’t force the Bruins’ hand as much with their new top prospect.

The Calgary Flames also have been a popular speculative destination since they drafted and signed Hayes’ good friends and former BC linemates Bill Arnold and Gaudreau. There's a really easy recruiting pitch in there as the trio was the most productive line in some years in college hockey. The Flames also have a weaker NHL roster down the wings, with not a lot in the pipeline either. That could be a match, but don’t call it good just yet.

Another possibility is the Florida Panthers, which is the team Hayes’ older brother Jimmy plays on. There were rumors that Jimmy’s trade from the Blackhawks was at the root of Kevin’s lack of desire to sign with the club. That has been refuted by the Hayes’ agent, however. Florida has a litany of top end forward prospects, however, and Hayes may not be a fit for immediate playing time there as several players have been paying their dues within the organization already. Additionally, Jimmy Hayes is still unsigned as a restricted free agent and is headed to arbitration.

Odds are there will be other teams that are going to get in there and try to make a pitch. Having a big kid with power-forward potential hit the open market is attractive. Having him on a two-year entry-level deal is even more attractive.

The ball really is in Hayes’ court at this point, making him a rather intriguing option on the open market should he end up not signing with Chicago.

CBS Sports Writer

Chris Peters has been a hockey writer for CBS Sports since 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for numerous outlets and edited the United States of Hockey blog, covering the sport at all levels. Peters also... Full Bio

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