TAMPA, Fla. – Claude Julien said he had “a hunch” that playing Jimmy Hayes Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning was going to end well for the Bruins.
“At one point you have to go with your gut feeling and Jimmy Hayes is a pretty good shooter. He’s one of those guys that can really let the puck go, and he’s got a quick release,” said Julien. “I felt pretty good about putting him out there, and for some reason I had the gut feeling that he was going to go out there and do it.
“Guys are always looking for a reason to get them going and that’s certainly a big boost for him to score the winning goal for us. We need four lines to be good for us to have success, and we’re trying to work on that right now.”
Perhaps the B’s coach couldn’t have predicted that the underachieving Hayes would be the successful 10th shooter in the shootout that handed the Bruins a 4-3 win over the Bolts at Amalie Arena, but clearly Julien thought something positive was coming when he scratched underperforming third line left wing Matt Beleskey rather than Hayes.
That “gut feeling” played out Hayes stared down Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy before firing a wrist shot inside the far post that was pretty much a perfect shot in that situation after so many other B’s players had fallen short.
That’s the instinctive feel for his team that makes Julien an excellent hockey coach and it also puts on full display the level of potential Hayes still has if his confidence and assertiveness are where they’re supposed to be. It’s probably tough to be either one of those things when Hayes hasn’t scored a point in his last 26 games dating to a Feb. 24 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, but he hopes that his clutch shot can get the ball rolling for him a little bit.
It’s one of those situations where any news is good news for Hayes after the way last season ended with a resounding thud for him.
“I just went with a confident move and beat him,” said Hayes, who credited backup goalie Zane McIntyre with telling him to be patient with his shootout move before he hopped over the boards. “It’s sure nice to be able to contribute in the way that you want to be contributing. It’s been up and down here, but I just need to continue to build off it and find a way to find the back of the net here.”
Certainly finding the back of the net is part of the story for the 26-year-old from Dorchester, Mass., and part of the reason he was brought to Boston in the Reilly Smith trade in the first place. It’s also part of a gigantic offensive drought that has Hayes putting all kinds of pressure on his own shoulders to the point where it’s probably paralyzed his ability to confidently make plays on a third line that’s massively underachieved with Riley Nash and Beleskey.
Still, there also needs to be a transformation to his game that still hasn’t quite happened all the way for the 6-foot-6, 221-pound Hayes just yet. Despite his massive frame, Hayes hasn't been a game-changing figure in front of the net helping to wreak havoc and he hasn't embraced enough of the high-effort, gritty things that he'll need to do as a bottom-six guy in order to have sustained NHL success.
It’s the same kind of transformation that fellow Boston College alum Brian Boyle had to undergo once he jumped from college hockey to the pros where he was no longer a heralded, offensively gifted first-round pick. Instead, Boyle needed to embrace blocking shots, playing the physical game dictated by his 6-foot-7 size and strength and playing on an edge that made him difficult to play against on most nights.
It wasn’t always easy for Boyle as he washed out of the Kings organization where they even toyed with turning him into a defenseman, but things started to click for him as a 27-year-old while playing for the New York Rangers. He hoped that the same might be true for a good friend in Hayes that Boyle skates with in the summer, and that he shares a bond with as a product of Jerry York’s program at the Heights.
“It’s the best league in the world, and I’m close with Jimmy. I know that he puts a tremendous amount of pressure on himself. I train with him. He trains really hard. It’s hard to be good in this league. It’s hard to find a niche because you want to stick to what you’re good at, and really use your strengths,” said Boyle. “For me when the minutes got shortened earlier in my career, it was tough for me to do the things that I thought I was good at. Even though I might have been at them in high school, or college, or even in the American League, it was going to take a lot of work to be good at them at this level.
“There were other things I really needed to improve, or I was going to be exposed. There’s a consistency thing where if you take a shift off or a night off, you’re going to get exposed and that’s tough. You see the guys in Boston and how hard they work, and everybody around the league knows about [Zdeno] Chara and [Patrice] Bergeron and the way they train and work. It’s constantly pushing themselves because there’s constantly young guys coming in and pushing, and if you’re just staying the same then you’re actually getting worse. It’s tough for a big guy because when you make one mistake the whole building can see it, so you need to be on your game and you need to have thick skin too. You put in the work, and then you know you have it there when your name is called. I had a good year in New York a few years back and I’ve had bad years since, so you constantly have to improve yourself.”
Was there something that clicked for Boyle, and could click for Hayes, about using his skills and his natural gifts to turn into a grittier player than the celebrated skill forward he thought he might be coming out of college?
“I tried to play that way. But you think you’re working hard sometimes, and then you get toward training camp and it’s a whole new world and you’re like ‘Oh my goodness.’ It helps to have the mindset that you’re not necessarily injured just because you’re hurting, and you’re not tired if you’re sucking wind. You can find another level, and [John Tortorella] helped me a ton with that,” said Boyle. “You push yourself as hard as you can growing up and you think you’re working hard because you’re working harder than the guy next to you. But you get to this level, and it’s a whole new ballgame.”
There were times last season when Hayes showed flashes of perhaps grasping that next level that’s required to contribute with the Bruins. Thursday night’s game-winner in the shootout was another reminder that there’s potential to be a powerful force inside Hayes’ big hockey body.
Now, it might just be a matter of embracing some of those things as Boyle did right around the same time in his hockey career, and finding ways to help the Bruins even if those shots aren’t falling like they hadn’t for the previous 25 games prior to Hayes’ shootout winner. If the local kid can do that, then a lot of the haters and naysayers will get back on his side after a rough go of it in his first year-plus playing in Boston.