BC Senior's Game Finally Straightening Up
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
When the Chicago Blackhawks chose Kevin Hayes with the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, the franchise put Kevin Hayes on a straight line to realizing his dream.
Some time at Boston College, maybe a stint in the AHL and then the NHL. The fast track. A straight line between BC and the Chicago Blackhawks. Part of that route, the simple path, was for Hayes to remember who he was and learn to play the way he should. At 6-foot-4, 216 pounds with stick and puck skills to match, the best path is a straight one.
It's difficult for talented players blessed with uncommon size and strength to adjust their game as they grow. At lower levels, they rely on their speed and hands to move around opponents with ease. As they advance, it's the players who diversify their game and adjust it to their strengths that enjoy the most success.
For Hayes to move along that straight line to the NHL, he had to learn to play on one.
"It's not an easy role to learn, but it's fun to play," Hayes said on Friday following a 5-2 BC win over Providence. "My first few years, I relied too much on skill instead of playing to my strengths. I have size, and it's something teams struggle to defend."
In Hayes' first three years, he enjoyed some personal success on the typically deep BC teams. However, his numbers and influence never reflected the type of player warranting a No. 1 selection in the NHL draft. Through three seasons, his career high in goals was seven and points was 28. Last year, in the midst of a strong season for BC but an underwhelming season individually, a series of injuries and off-ice incidents confronted Hayes.
After a three-game suspension, Hayes returned to the lineup on Feb. 26 against Massachusetts-Lowell. It was in this game that he suffered a thigh injury that he initially thought minor. A charlie horse turned into numbness and eventual questions regarding his career.
"Last year, I didn't have the personal success I wanted and then the injury almost ended my career," Hayes said. "It took four surgeries and a lot of strength work with our staff here to get back on the ice."
Hayes points to this moment as the turning point in his career. Realizing he almost lost everything made him consider how much he had to lose. For the first time, the constant directives from his coaching staff at BC and the Blackhawks really resonated. Play in a straight line, be more direct.
Hayes is a power forward, and, as a senior, he's become the nation's best. Through 20 games, Hayes has already established career highs in goals (12), assists (21) and points (33). Playing alongside center Bill Arnold and fellow winger and Hobey Baker favorite Johnny Gaudreau suits Hayes perfectly. Most players would enjoy some success skating with such gifted linemates. Hayes, however, offers the perfect complement to the three-zone brilliance of Arnold and playmaking flare of Gaudreau.
"Bill is by far the best three-zone player in the country, and Johnny is by far the best overall player in the country," Hayes said. "Anyone could play with those two and put up numbers. We've just clicked since coach put us together."
In the six games since BC coach Jerry York stuck Hayes alongside Gaudreau and Arnold, the trio has combined for 35 points (14 goals and 21 assists). Hesitant to make the move initially to lengthen his bench, York's decision has helped BC move into first place in Hockey East.
York has noticed the change in Hayes' game as well. Comparing Hayes to his brother, Jimmy, who also developed into a power forward for the Eagles after some transition, York believes Kevin has realized the type of player he must be. Speed and skill are part of Kevin's game, but his size and strength make him an elite college hockey player with the ability to be a successful professional.
"His brother was similar. Jimmy, it took him a little while to really become a force in college hockey," York said. "Kevin's had a good career here at BC, but, right now, he's a completely different player than he's been in any of his three years here. The injury last year set him back. It made him start thinking that he really wanted to do something special in his last year here. When he decided to come back, we weren't sure if he was going to come back, he made a decision. He's just been a horse down there.
"He's really coming hard. He's a big, strong kid. He's just figured out that he is big, and he has strength, and I have to play to that to be successful. He's always fought that, trying to be a fancier player. If he wants to play at this level and be really successful and have a chance to play at the next level, I have to be more of a power forward. We're seeing the dividends because of that."
Similarly, Arnold, a longtime teammate and friend of Hayes', has seen the transformation in Kevin's game. He's benefited heavily since York assembled his dynamic first line.
"Seeing him out there this season, he's been great for us," Arnold said. "He's been one of the top players in the country. I've played with Kevin for a long time. He's really evolved as a player this season, using his strength more. Since we've all been on the same line, his size has been a huge asset for us."
Friday night against Providence, Hayes displayed every element of his game, creating BC's first goal with some nifty stick work from the high slot and turning to his strength and hockey sense to lead a perfect Eagle penalty kill alongside Arnold.
Last week against Notre Dame, however, brought out the true force Hayes has become. In the third period with the score tied, 3-3, Arnold blocked a Shayne Taker slap shot and the puck kicked to Hayes in the high slot.
Using his strength to maintain possession and speed to create a scoring chance, Hayes raced up ice. It was then, the true difference between Hayes and other players rose to the fore. After successfully staving off Johns, one of Hockey East's most menacing defensemen, he laid a brilliant pass to Gaudreau who picked it up and slipped it past Notre Dame goaltender Steven Summerhays.
The goal gave BC a 4-3 lead and an eventual win over the Fighting Irish at Fenway Park. Throughout Hayes' three-and-a-half years at BC, his skill went unquestioned. Kevin Hayes was always going to be a star. He arrived in the fall of 2010 with a pretty clear path to success as an Eagle and beyond. It took longer than expected, but Kevin Hayes is playing in a straight line now — the shortest distance between Boston College and the NHL.