Gavin Hayes Speaks: Big Year, Development, Future with the Blackhawks, More
When the Blackhawks traded Kirby Dach to the Montreal Canadiens last summer, the focus of that deal was on the 13th overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. And everyone is still excited about the future of Michigan forward Frank Nazar. But the Blackhawks received two picks in that deal: No. 13 overall and a third-rounder that didn’t generate as much buzz. With a full season now in the books since then, Gavin Hayes is making enough noise that we need to pay a lot of attention to both players received in that deal.
Earlier this month I wrote about how strong Hayes’ numbers were this season for Flint in the OHL. His 41 goals are a number that only two other Blackhawks’ draft picks have hit in their post-draft junior seasons since 2011; the others were Garrett Ross and Alex DeBrincat.
Hayes’ production was good enough that the Blackhawks signed him to an entry-level contract. And, after Flint was eliminated from their playoffs, Hayes got the call to join the IceHogs for the AHL playoffs.
I spoke with Hayes about his year since getting drafted, working with the Blackhawks and where his career is headed. Getting the ink on paper with the Blackhawks wasn’t something he was focused on, but he’s happy that it happened.
“I was playing well and then I think I was in Kitchener and my agent called me and he was like, ‘They’re kind of thinking about signing you soon.'” he said. “And then I just let him do all the work and I just focused on playing hockey, which was good. And then everything worked out.”
That’s not to say Hayes hadn’t communicated with the Blackhawks during the season. In fact, he said the organization touched base with him regularly to discuss everything from elements of his game to work on, nutrition, recovery and his overall game.
Even before he signed his first professional contract, being a draft player changed Hayes’ mindset. And he told me having played with and against other prospects and some NHL players helped elevate his confidence in his second OHL season with Flint.
“I played in [the OHL] last year, so I knew what it was all about,” Hayes said. “So that gave me the confidence to play the way I want to play. And also just going to camps with Chicago, like rookie camp and development camps. Just seeing what those guys do off the ice, taking care of their bodies and stuff like that. Just for them to play a hundred percent every game, seeing what they do off the ice, stretching, what they’re putting into their bodies, stuff like that, which makes me play a hundred percent every game.”
Taking care of his body and getting stronger were the areas that Hayes identified as his biggest development pieces over the past year, into this offseason and next year. He’s skating with Rockford right now and noted how strong and physically mature the players are in the AHL. Hayes said he’s talked to the Blackhawks about some specific ways he can improve his skating as well, but he views physical growth as the next step of his progression.
And that makes sense for a player who doesn’t turn 19 until the middle of May. But what impressed me was when I asked what Hayes’ go-to meal on a game day is for a player who spent the entire season as an 18-year-old. He liked to prepare a nice salmon filet with rice and broccoli; I half expected him to say Chipotle (which has been noted as a go-to for some young players in the NHL recently).
We also talked about elevated expectations for a player not only in his second year in the OHL, but also a player who was drafted. He said his role definitely took a big step forward this year, but his leadership was also something that grew.
“I was only playing 14 minutes last year in the playoffs, so it wasn’t that much,” he told me. “But this year I think I was playing over 20 minutes. And it’s definitely hard to play those 20 minutes every night, especially when we’re going into overtime. I think it was three games, so played a lot.”
Hayes told me the plan is to be back in the OHL next year, but noted that a lot of the guys he’s been close with on the roster are likely moving on the pro ranks so his leadership will be more important in the coming season as well.
He impressed me throughout our conversation. Hayes said he loves watching Nathan MacKinnon in the NHL now, but said he heard some comparisons to Blake Wheeler before the draft as well (including from the Blackhawks). So he’s been watching more Jets games as well. I asked him to self-scout himself and describe his game, and he specifically brought up being used in a variety of roles over the past two seasons.
“I think I’m a two-way forward that can play defense and offense, obviously puck in the net, but also good defensively. Good defensively positioning, stuff like that. And I feel like last year my role was totally different in the playoffs. I was a fourth line guy in the playoffs last year… when we played Windsor. The next round I was on the first line. So I feel like I can do any role, but I was also a two-way forward. That’s my game.”
Hayes’ favorite element in his game right now is his shot, which feels obvious for a player who more than doubled his previous career high in the goal scoring department from the previous year.
“I feel like I can get myself in the soft spot and slot, shoot the puck fast, get it off fast. But also playmaking. I know where everyone’s at on the ice, so I can also pass the puck too.”
As the Blackhawks take the next step forward in their rebuild, last summer’s draft class is going to play an important role in the transformation of the franchise. We’ve seen impressive production from players like Nazar, Kevin Korchinski, Ryan Greene, Samuel Savoie and Aidan Thompson in different leagues and tournaments. And Hayes is right in the middle of that exciting young group.
One year removed from hearing his name called and a whirlwind year that included a career-year, a pro contract and a quick trip to Rockford to join the AHL playoffs quickly after his OHL squad was eliminated from their playoffs, what advice would Hayes give himself if he could go back to talk to the kid who was hoping to be an NHL draft pick?
“I’d just say believe in myself like I did.”
With that belief and growing confidence — and a few more pounds of muscle — the future is bright for Hayes in Chicago.