The Chicago Blackhawks are bursting at the seams as an organization with NHL-caliber players.
For the most part, that's a good situation to be in. But one of the potential issues has come to light this year. As seen in the case of Kevin Hayes, the Blackhawks' 2010 first-round draft pick, their prospects have the option of waiting out the period the organization owns their rights and when they can decide to become free agents.
The Blackhawks put a lot of time into working to develop Hayes over the past four-plus years, and it will be a disappointment for them if he doesn't sign, which is unlikely to happen before the Aug. 15 deadline. It will especially be frustrating for them if Hayes proves to be a capable NHL player.
One reason Hayes hasn't signed with the Blackhawks is because he doesn't see a place for himself in the NHL in the immediate future. Twenty-two years old and coming off a stellar senior season at Boston College, Hayes believes he can be in the NHL sooner rather than later. But with the talent the Blackhawks already have in the NHL and with more NHL-ready players waiting their turn in the AHL, Hayes would have to likely wait at least a season or two before he could be an everyday NHL player.
This may not be an issue going forward for the Blackhawks. It is uncommon for an organization's prospect to decline an entry-level contract and wait to become a free agent. Stephen Johns had the same option out of Notre Dame this year and signed with the Blackhawks.
There's no guarantee either way. The Blackhawks could be susceptible to this again because they do appear to have set themselves up to be loaded with NHL-ready players throughout the organization for years to come. Behind their current signed prospects, the Blackhawks have drafted a lot of players who are currently in college or will be entering college in the next year or two. If any those players develop as the Blackhawks hope, there will be some risk involved if those players are allowed to remain in college for four years.
To eliminate that risk, the Blackhawks could look to sign those college prospects earlier. They could attempt to sway their top top-tier college players to leave after their sophomore or junior seasons and sign them to entry-level contracts. They have done this before with players such as Jonathan Toews and Nick Leddy.
The Blackhawks already appear to have a handful of players whom they might consider signing prior to their senior seasons. Forwards John Hayden, Vincent Hinostroza and Anthony Louis are coming off productive freshman seasons and continued to impress at last week's prospect camp. Tyler Motte didn't attend the camp, but he also had a strong freshman season. Nick Schmaltz, the Blackhawks' 2014 first-round pick, also played well in the camp and will be a freshman next year.
"I'm sure the Blackhawks are going to be disappointed if [Hayes] walks for free," said an NHL agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It may motivate them to accelerate the process. In Kevin Hayes' case, he was coming off a so-so junior year. I don't think they made a mistake with him."
ESPN's NHL draft and prospects analyst Corey Pronman also pointed to Hayes' situation being a unique one.
"I think the thing with college prospects is for the most part it is very rare for a college prospect not to sign with a team," Pronman said. "Usually it's the other way around, and a team won't want to sign them.
"It could get to a point where they could make an offer earlier in a player's development and not wait to his senior year. With Hayes, he wasn't all that good as a junior. He only had a better senior season. I don't think they made a drastic bad decision in his case."
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman didn't seem fearful of losing future players like Hayes when asked about their organizational depth on Friday.
"You always want to have good players, and the flip side of that is you want players who want to be here," Bowman said. "I'm not quite sure the dynamics on that. Stephen Johns was in the exact same position, and he signed his contract the next day and he got right to Rockford. Obviously, different players have different motivations.
"At this point, we're always trying to build our stable of prospects. It's a competitive game and you want players who want to show that they're the best and you want players who want to be somewhere and prove that they can beat players out. That's the nature of our game. It's a competitive game. If that's something that certain players don't like, that's not really something we're looking at."
The Blackhawks normally have an amount of respect from their prospects.
"One of the cool things that makes the Blackhawks who they are is they have their own way of doing things," the agent said. "They want guys to be there. They've told our guys that when we've worked with them. I believe that goes a long way.
"These kids are getting drafted who are local kids, those aren't favors. These kids can play. Of course, they want to be Blackhawks. They've very good at what they do, and they develop players."