OTTAWA - Jimmy Hayes will have no shortage of NHL connections to tap into as he strives to make the Toronto Maple Leafs in future years.
The winger from Dorchester, Mass., was taken 60th overall by the Maple Leafs at the NHL draft on Saturday. He had originally been ranked higher but slipped a little after an off year with Lincoln in the United States Hockey League.
Hayes' mother is cousins with St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk and former NHLer Tom Fitzgerald and he's spent time around both guys while growing up.
Fitzgerald actually sent the 18-year-old a text message of encouragement on Friday night after the first round passed without him being selected.
"His career starts today," said Fitzgerald, who now works for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That's the same way Hayes was looking at the situation.
He had four goals and 11 points while playing 21 games in the low-scoring USHL this season. He'll play at Boston College in the fall and wants to prove that the Maple Leafs made the right choice in selecting him.
"I didn't have the season I wanted to have," said Hayes. "Going into the season I was a big high prospect. I believe I'm still a high prospect.
"I'm glad I got to fall to the Toronto Maple Leafs."
Toronto used its third pick of the draft to grab another player who slipped. They selected Quebec Remparts winger Mikhail Stefanovich in the 98th position.
He was once projected to be a first-round pick but struggled with consistency at times this season. Even still, Leafs director of amateur scouting Dave Morrison couldn't let a player with as much talent as the Belarusian go any further.
"He's a shooter," said Morrison. "He's another guy we were thrilled to get. He had 36 goals last year."
The Leafs were pleased with their weekend after trading up to grab defenceman Luke Schenn with the fifth overall pick on Friday night. He'll be given a chance to make the lineup next season.
It will take a little longer than that for a guy like Hayes, but the Maple Leafs are optimistic about his long-term chances.
"Big guys get better," said Morrison. "He's a kid that can skate and he's got good hockey sense. There's some lineage with him; there's some people in his family who played in the NHL."
The other players Toronto selected on Saturday were:
-American defenceman Greg Pateryn, 128th overall, from Ohio of the USHL;
-centre Joel Champagne, 129th, from the QMJHL's Chicoutimi Saugeneens;
-German winger Jerome Flaake, 130th, from Koln of the DEL;
-goalie Grant Rollheiser, 158th, from Trail of the BCHL;
-defenceman Andrew MacWilliam, 188th, Camrose of the AJHL.
The biggest news for the Maple Leafs over the weekend surrounded Mats Sundin after GM Cliff Fletcher granted the Montreal Canadiens exclusive rights to negotiate with his captain before July 1. If the Habs can come to terms with Sundin, the Leafs would trade his rights to their biggest rival.
In the meantime, Toronto added a few players who are hoping to be part of the team long into the future. Hayes was certainly thinking that way.
"Best feeling I've ever had," he said. "This is thrilling. I can't believe I'm part of the Toronto Maple Leafs."