|Jimmy Hayes, who scored 23 goals and 43 points in 2006-07 with the Under-18 team, struggled in his second season and dropped to No. 63 when the final Central Scouting rankings were released in April.|
He's constantly strived to improve his game, and despite some hardships following his return last year to the U.S. National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., has persevered to become a hot topic heading into the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, to be held June 20-21 in Ottawa.
Hayes was among the top five North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings prior to opting for a second season with the NTDP. With a November 1989 birth date, he just missed the cutoff for 2007 Draft-eligible players. And with a year remaining in high school, he returned to the NTDP as the first over-age player in the program's history.
Hayes, who posted 23 goals and 43 points in 2006-07 with the Under-18 team, struggled in his second season, however, and plummeted to No. 63 when the final Central Scouting rankings were released in April.
"I was an over-age player at the NTDP and it was tough, so both parties (myself and USA Hockey) agreed that it was time to move on and develop with kids my age,'' Hayes told NHL.com. "The U.S. National Team did a great job of developing me and I became a stronger hockey player because of the program, but it was time to see what I could do elsewhere.''
One of Hayes' teammates on the NTDP, Kyle Palmieri of Montvale, N.J., felt the criticism was unfair.
"I spent a lot of time with Jimmy while he was in Ann Arbor, and I can honestly say he was like a brother to me,'' Palmieri told NHL.com. "He was a real leader when it came to on- and off-ice situations. I've heard that his work ethic was questioned since he wasn't putting up the numbers he had (in 2006-07), but he was certainly a role model to me because of how hard he worked. He set a great example for the younger guys in helping all of us who were just starting out. He was a great influence on me and taught me a lot of things I've even incorporated into my game.''
Even with the drop in the rankings, the 18-year-old Hayes never was discouraged. After joining the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League on Feb. 8, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound right winger posted 11 assists, 15 points and had a plus-9 rating in 21 regular-season games. He added nine more points and a plus-5 rating in eight playoff appearances.
In Lincoln, Hayes discovered his niche.
"I had a great time in the USHL and had a chance to play with two awesome linemates in Ryan Kretzker (who is headed to Nebraska-Omaha) and Jason Gregoire (North Dakota),'' Hayes said. "The experience helped me a lot and I suppose it turned out for the best.''
Hayes, who will play for 2008 NCAA champion Boston College in the fall, was interviewed by 15 NHL teams during the 2008 NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto last month. He actually roomed with No. 10 prospect and Boston University sophomore Colin Wilson during his stay at the combine.
While he doesn't consider himself to be overly physical, Hayes takes pride in working hard between the circles.
"I believe my size and strength, speed and skill set are qualities that any coach would appreciate,'' Hayes said. "I also take my off-ice conditioning very seriously. I've never considered myself a physical type of player, but more of a skilled skater capable of using my body in different ways besides finishing off players with just a body check.''
Palmieri was a first-hand witness to Hayes' power game, describing him as "impossible to move off the puck.''
"He was a dominating power forward and I found him to be very unselfish on the ice,'' said the 18-year-old Palmieri, who is eligible for the 2009 Draft. "Even with all of the negative press he was getting as the year went on, I can't say it affected him, but made him work harder. For his size, he could move well and was much more agile then any of the other 6-foot-4 players I've played against.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think I can say a bad thing about Jimmy. I really think he has what it takes to make a career playing hockey.''
If he does make it, he won't be the first from his family. St. Louis Blues All-Star forward Keith Tkachuk and Tom Fitzgerald, who played 17 NHL seasons and now is the director of player development for the Pittsburgh Penguins, are Hayes' cousins.
"Jimmy has a lot of upside, and for a big kid he skates pretty well and has a nice skill set,'' Fitzgerald said. "The biggest thing Keith and I can do for him is to tell him never be complacent.''
Hayes is grateful Tkachuk and Fitzgerald can provide encouragement and assistance.
"They are my role models,'' Hayes said. "Keith plays a similar style of game to what I play – he is a power forward trying to score goals, like I'm trying to do.''
At the 2007 Under-18 Championship in Finland, Hayes recorded three points to help the United States to a silver medal.
"Jimmy has an unbelievable attitude, is a fierce competitor and wants to score,'' Tim Taylor, an assistant coach on that team, said in an interview with Hockey's Future. "He is like a sponge, and as a coach he takes in everything you say and is a quick learner.''
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.