But when Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon called him on Wednesday to tell him he had been moved to Boston — to his hometown team — Hayes’ head started to spin a little bit.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” Hayes said on Wednesday night, just a few hours after the trade came down. “I grew up a Boston Bruins fan, and having the chance to play for the Boston Bruins is a dream come true.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s probably one of the most exciting moments I’ve had in a while.”
Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney was clear about one thing when he addressed the media via conference call on Wednesday night, after the acquisitions were finalized: He said that the Bruins entered free agency targeting players who fit the Bruins’ style of play, but also — and perhaps more importantly — players who are passionate about being a part of the Boston Bruins.
Sweeney saw that in Hayes. He saw it as early as June 26, at the NHL Draft in Sunrise, Fla., when he and Panthers GM Dale Tallon first engaged in discussions.
“I had a conversation [with Tallon] prior to the draft, at the draft, just talking about our different teams and trying to improve our teams, and we had talked leading up to today,” Sweeney said. “We had talked [Wednesday] morning — just general concepts as to what we were both thinking to try and improve our teams.
“We’re extremely excited to have a player like Jimmy heading to our team. He has a lot of upside. He had a breakout year offensively, and I think he’s excited to play with the centermen that we have. He was equally excited, obviously, with the young players they had in Florida.
“He’s got a chance to come home and play in front of his family and friends, which will present some challenges for him as well, but he went to school here… I thought it made a lot of sense for a lot of different reasons.”
The trade left Hayes with some mixed emotions. He was elated to learn he would be playing for the team he watched on TV every night as a kid growing up down the street in Dorchester — but the Panthers, he said, are the team that gave him his shot. They were the team that believed in him, and for that, he will be forever grateful.
“Florida’s a team that’s given me an opportunity to develop my game,” Hayes said. “I’m very appreciative of that, but now it’s a dream come true, to play for your hometown team.
“It came out of nowhere for me; I didn’t think I was in the trade talks. I wasn’t sure what was going on with the trades and whatnot. I assumed I was going to be with the Florida Panthers; I was a restricted free agent, and that situation was going well for me.
“It kind of just threw me off guard, but it ended up working out well for me.”
After spending three seasons at Boston College — and bringing a national championship to Chestnut Hill in 2010 — Hayes signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. He spent the majority of his time with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, suiting up for a total of 120 AHL games from 2010 to 2013. He got into a few Blackhawks games, but his first real shot at the NHL came when he was shipped to Florida early on in the 2013-14 season.
In 53 games with the Panthers that year, Hayes would accumulate 11 goals and seven assists for 18 points. This past season, however, was his breakout year. His 19 goals ranked third on the team, and in total, he tallied 35 points.
When asked what clicked for him this season, Hayes credited Florida’s coaching and management staff.
“With Gerard Gallant — they gave me a huge opportunity,” he said. “Coming from the top, again, with Dale, and believing in me and giving me a chance to play and show people that I can play in this league — I think that was the biggest thing, was getting an opportunity to play.”
Hayes may have spent the last four seasons away from Boston, but he has kept up with what the Bruins have done. He said that is only natural, given that they were his favorite team growing up — “You have that general interest,” he said — but moreover, the Bruins and the Panthers spent much of last season battling for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference standings.
“When you’re facing them,” he said, “you know their moves every day.”
Hayes has also kept up with the course of events this offseason; he has, after all, been right down the street in the Seaport, where he is living during the offseason while he works out with Brian McDonough at Edge Performance Systems in Foxboro, Mass. Hayes knows that there could be a void in Boston’s lineup that perhaps he is meant to fill.
“I’m a big guy — I know the Bruins like to play the big, power-type style of game,” he said, “so I’m going to have to continue to develop myself into that type of player and continue to use my size and scoring ability to my advantage.”
Of course, there is more to Hayes’ game than size — though he does fully intend to continue to use it to his advantage.
“We kind of say it [in Florida]: You can’t really teach size, so being big, I have to take advantage of being as big as I am, and I’ve got to use my reach and use my skill set as well as I can and continue to develop my skill around the net to score a lot of goals,” he said. “I don’t score many goals from outside; I score my goals in tight, so I’m going to have to continue to work on that with my game.”
And as he continues to fine-tune that skill set, he cannot think of a better place to do it than in Boston. For the first time since leaving Chestnut Hill following the 2010-11 season, it is like he is coming home.
“To come home to Boston is crazy,” he said. “It’s a moment that I always envisioned happening; I just didn’t know when, and didn’t know it would happen this soon, so happening now, when I’m 25, is just a huge opportunity for me.”