Photo courtesy Lucas Chudleigh/Prince Albert Raiders
Every draft year there is a few plays who come from completely off the scouting radar to being ranked and eventually drafted. That would appear to fit the story of Prince Albert Raiders’ defenseman Zack Hayes’ 2016-17 season. The 1999-born blue liner was just trying to make the Raiders and opportunities just kept opening up for him.
Those opportunities came with the trading away of veteran blue-liners Brennan Riddle, Brendan Guhle, Loch Morrison and Cam Reagan.
“I knew that I had some big shoes to fill so I upped my game to make sure that I could be counted on by my coaches. I had to be sure to work on things in practice and after practice just to make sure I could fill those shoes. Going into this year, at the very beginning, I wasn’t sure with who was all there in camp. My original goal was just to make the team. I wasn’t sure about how many games I would play. I just stuck with my game and took it day-by-day. As the opportunities came, they just fell into place for me.”
Hayes credits lessons he learned at the three different levels of hockey he played last year in getting him to a spot where he could step up his game and earn a full-time roster spot.
“Starting out in Midget it really helped because I was the go-to defenseman on the team. The coaches looked for responsibility and leadership it helped me develop there. Then throughout the season I got called up to the Junior A Canmore Eagles and it was good to know what the next level is. That helped me prepare for when I was up with the Raiders.”
Playing at the next level is easier when you are Hayes’ size. The six-foot-three, 212-pound has found it easier than most due to his large frame making it harder for opponents to bully him on the ice.
“It really helps out being bigger especially being one of the bigger guys on the ice. I’m able to keep up with my strength on the older guys and not get pushed around.”
It’s only natural then that he has fallen into more of a shutdown role on the Raiders.
“Being as big as I am, I know I have to play more of a shutdown role. My d-partner Max Martin is more of offensive d-man. I like to stay back, so he can do his thing and I can my thing.”
Max Martin came over from Prince George in the Guhle trade and the two have been paired together pretty much ever since.
“It took a little while to get to know him and his tendencies on the ice. It was pretty quick though because we roomed together during he first couple of road trips so we got to know each other pretty well. Once we got a few practices in and got used to each other and where each other are in different areas on the ice.”
Martin and Hayes are two of the Raiders’ seven roster d-men and all of them are eligible to return for the 2017-18 WHL season.
“It really helps out knowing that all of us could return. That chemistry is there between us all. We all know how each others plays. With that one more year for us that everyone will have, it will be a good year for sure.”
One highlight of Hayes’ season was his first WHL goal, which came on January 18th in Cranbrook, B.C. Hayes recalls it fondly.
“Well we were playing against Kootenay. The puck got dumped in and pushed around and my d-partner Max Martin took a couple steps to the middle and passed to me and I just stepped in and took a slapshot. It went in.”
As the season has wound down for the Raiders, Hayes has contributed more offensively. He has had a point in six of his last nine games, which is half of his season total. Hayes is on track to play in all 72 games for the Raiders.
He knows what key things he needs to concentrate on improving in the off-season to work towards being that elite WHL-shutdown defender.
“Foot speed and quickness, just so that I can work on keeping up with those top lines and those speedy guys. Also, my hands on the blue line just so that I can be more deceptive in both my defensive zone passing and my offensive zone to get my shots off and through.”
Hayes has benefited big time from the Raiders strong move to go with a young blue line Opportunities are there for hockey players at every level though and it’s what Hayes did with his opportunity that has him ranked 152nd among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting at the midterm. He is also firmly a part of the Raider’s future on defence.