TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- New York Rangers center Kevin Hayes is just happy to be back on the ice and playing hockey.
Hayes was a primary topic of discussion over the summer after signing an entry-level contract with the Rangers on Aug. 20. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound forward became an unrestricted free agent when he and the Chicago Blackhawks, who selected him in the first round of the 2010 NHL Draft (No. 24), could not agree to a contract.
Hayes is here with the Rangers' prospects at the Traverse City Tournament this week with high hopes for making a lasting impression heading into training camp. He's played well but feels he could be a lot better.
"I'm having a lot of fun being here and getting the legs going again," Hayes said. "I still need to perform better, to be honest.
"It was pretty relaxing at the beginning of the summer and awkward not signing with Chicago. Once I realized that I was going to explore other options, Chicago was never out of the loop. We narrowed it down to about five teams and felt New York was the best team, short and long term. So I sat down with my family, brother and agent, and figured it out."
Hayes, who has been playing center at the tournament, had 44 goals, 132 points and a plus-37 rating in 142 career games at Boston College in Hockey East, where he played two seasons with Rangers forward Chris Kreider.
He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the most valuable player in college hockey last season after he finished second in the NCAA with 65 points and fifth with 27 goals playing on a line with Calgary Flames prospects Bill Arnold and Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker.
"Our line was pretty memorable, to be honest, with how all three of us worked together," Hayes said. "Johnny is the best college player in the past 10 years and Billy Arnold is one of the best two-way players I've ever played with. Those are two very different and dynamic players. They both bring a lot of things to the table, and anyone could have performed like I did playing with them."
The most important aspect of the game that Hayes must continue to improve at the next level is learning how to master that power-forward game Boston College coach Jerry York continually stressed.
"In my first couple of years [at Boston College] I was trying to play a little high school hockey and it didn't really work out for me," Hayes said. "Jerry sat me down and challenged me to play like a 6-foot-4 type of guy, by driving with strong legs, protecting the puck and having a heavy stick. He didn't want me to dangle from goal line to goal line.
"He screamed at me a couple times, but the message got through."
Playing a big man's game will go a long way in Hayes' immediate future plans with the Rangers.