CHICAGO -- Not to put any pressure on a 19-year old prospect, but Brad Ross of the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks is getting a pretty steep bar to reach for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That can be found in the Windy City right now wearing a large Chicago Blackhawks uniform with the name "Hayes" on the back. The owner of that big uniform is 6-foot-6, 221-pound Jimmy Hayes, a 22-year old power forward the Leafs selected in the second round (No. 60) of the 2008 NHL Draft.
He was traded to Chicago on the same weekend that Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman took his younger brother, Kevin Hayes, in the 2010 NHL Draft -- an unheralded deal that sent the 43rd selection of that draft to Toronto.
The Leafs took Ross with that pick, while Hayes came to Chicago and impressed right from his first summer prospects camp not long after the Hawks finished off their 2010 Stanley Cup season. Less than two years later, the older Hayes is in the NHL and starting to open some eyes around the League with his size, skating and skill combination.
"He's a big body, and he does have some quickness to him and some great hands," said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, who's watched Hayes piled up 4 goals, 3 assists and a pair of multi-point efforts in his first 10 games. "He's got that long reach and he's got that touch. He sees and makes plays. His play recognition on the offensive side of things is good, and he's got awareness defensively which is complementary to our team game."
He's also got something the Hawks have lacked ever since they traded away hulking 6-4, 260-pound Dustin Byfuglien for salary cap relief after winning the Cup. Hayes gives Chicago some needed size up front, where he can park himself in front of the net to screen goalies and scrap for rebounds.
"[Hayes] is a big man," Quenneville said. "I like his size. I like him in tight areas. I like him in the puck area. He protects it well. He's got some quickness that maybe we didn't quite see earlier on, but he's been useful."
If Hayes continues along this developmental progression, "useful" might be putting it mildly. Hayes is currently shifting on the Hawks' fourth line with gritty veteran Jamal Mayers at center, but he's also taken a few spins on the second line and gotten some power-play minutes.
Teaming with 5-foot-10, 180-pound rookie dynamo Andrew Shaw, who signed his entry-level deal and joined the Hawks just two games after Hayes, the duo is helping the Hawks get through a month-long upper body injury that has Patrick Sharp (20 goals, 20 assists) sidelined.
"We're both just here to bring energy and work hard," Hayes said. "That's what's expected of us, and we're still trying to do that. It's a lot of fun trying to help a team win and stay in first place. It's great to be a part of it."
To think, he might've been a part of it in Toronto had that deal never materialized.
It's probably a good thing for the 6-1, 170-pound Ross that he has some impressive statistics of his own for Portland (29 goals, 26 assists in 44 games). He's also a forward and playing in his fifth season with the Winterhawks, where his 112 penalty minutes suggest some amount of grit, as well.
Still, Hayes looks like he could develop into a solid, dependable power forward for a top team in the Hawks -- which might not go over real well with Leafs fans or the Toronto media if it happens. Hayes, of course, hasn't even thought about that scenario -- or if he has, he's done a great job keeping it to himself.
The big fella isn't real willing to share his personal thoughts on things right now -- probably out of respect for more established veterans in his own locker room -- but at least one of those "vets" is willing to toot the horn for him.
"I sit next to Hayes (in the locker room)," said star forward Patrick Kane, who first met Hayes at the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. "We kind of hit it off right away and I love hanging out with the kid. He's hilarious and he's got that Boston accent. Both (Hayes and Shaw) are fun to watch and entertaining. It's given us a boost, for sure."