The Chicago Blackhawks are clearly one of the NHL's glamour franchises. A pair of Stanley Cups in the past five seasons and a roster that is loaded with superstar talent has placed the team in a position to contend for the championship again in 2014-15.
But the team's failure to sign its 2010 first-round draft choice, Kevin Hayes, could be indicative of a problem that may start to impact the team going forward.
Hayes, 22, was the 24th pick in the draft five years ago. Like many American youngsters, Hayes elected to play college hockey instead of signing with the pro team that drafted him. That was not a surprise nor a shock. Hayes, a right wing/center, went on to an excellent career at Boston College. While it was expected that he would eventually put his name on a contract with the Blackhawks, he ultimately chose not to.
As a result, he is a free agent who can negotiate a deal with any team. The Blackhawks had spoken regularly with Hayes throughout his four years at Boston College. They were disappointed they couldn't come to an agreement with him after he finished his 2013-14 season with 27 goals and 65 points for the Eagles. Hayes was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the best college hockey player in the nation.
"We offered Kevin what we believed was a generous and fair contract," general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. "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.”
The compensatory pick, the 54th overall selection next year, is cold comfort despite Bowman's explanation.
Hayes' chances of winning a spot on the loaded Blackhawks roster were not good. However, he is talented and experienced, and he has an excellent chance of sticking with several NHL teams.
Hayes had to look at the situation and determine whether he was better off playing in the Blackhawks' organization at the minor league level or signing with another team that would allow him to show off his talent and earn a spot at the NHL level.
Hayes' agent, Robert Murray, confirmed in an interview with ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers that the depth within the Blackhawks organization was one of the factors that the player considered before making his choice.
Players want to play, and they don't want to wait their turn patiently. Perhaps if Hayes had signed with the Blackhawks, a real opportunity might have been on hand in 2015-16, when the team is likely to make significant changes due to salary-cap considerations.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane signed major extensions last month, and contract terms will kick in beginning with the 2015-16 season. It seems likely that the Blackhawks will have to get rid of several high-salaried players before that season starts.
But Hayes doesn't have to wait for the Blackhawks' schedule, and other players in similar situations won't have to, either. They won't sign with a team that might give them a chance to play in the future if they know they can go elsewhere and earn a chance to play regularly right away.
That means the Blackhawks are not the ideal destination for young, talented prospects.
Hayes has the tools to become a solid scorer in the NHL. He's also 6'4" and 216 pounds, according to the Boston College website, and has displayed the willingness to wage puck battles in the corners or in front of the net.
According to Hockey's Future, Hayes is a creative offensive player with the ability to set his teammates up and open up space in the offensive zone.
While it would seem likely that Hayes will have his best chance if he signs with a non-playoff team that is badly in need of scoring talent, that may not be the case.
Hayes' hometown team, the Boston Bruins, does not have overwhelming scoring talent from the right wing. The Bruins lost Nathan Horton and Jarome Iginla over the past two offseasons, and they gave up on stars Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin.
The Bruins are talking about using Loui Eriksson at right wing on their top line with David Krejci and Milan Lucic this year. While Eriksson is a heady player who is well liked by teammates and the coaching staff, he scored 10 goals in an injury-plagued 2013-14 regular season.
Hayes would seem to have a much better chance of winning a spot with the Bruins than with the Blackhawks. The only drawback is that, like Eriksson, Hayes is a left-handed shot who plays the right side.
The Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames are also reportedly interested in Hayes. The New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche have also been mentioned as teams potentially interested in competing for Hayes' services.
None of the teams have the kind of talent that the Blackhawks already have on hand, and that will make it difficult for top prospects to see themselves in contention for a Chicago roster spot in the foreseeable future.
That's why Hayes' decision to opt for free agency is a problem for the team's future.