Rangy Jimmy Hayes ready to compete for Penguins roster spot | TribLIVE.com
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Jonathan Bombulie
New Jersey Devils forward Jimmy Hayes is seen against the Columbus Blue Jackets during an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. The Devils won 4-1. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

There’s a wide variety of talented wingers on the Penguins roster.

Some go to the net, and some thrive in open ice. Some are right-handed, and some are left-handed. Most of them can really skate.

What’s missing from the lineup, however, is a player who checks in at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds.

This fact was not lost on 28-year-old winger Jimmy Hayes as he sifted through free-agent offers and ultimately decided to sign a one-year, $650,000 contract with the Penguins on Sunday.

“Pittsburgh’s got lots of talent up front. That’s the type of team they are. They’re highly skilled,” Hayes said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. “I’m going to have to distinguish myself from everybody else.

“I have to play with that skill level. I know I have that. I just have to — I don’t want to say work hard, because everyone’s going to be working hard — but distinguish myself by maybe playing along the wall or being a big body and being a presence.”

Hayes comes to the Penguins on a two-way contract, hoping to reestablish himself as an NHL regular after two down seasons.

Hayes was a top prospect once upon a time, a second-round draft pick who won an NCAA championship at Boston College in 2010 and had a 25-goal AHL campaign in the Chicago Blackhawks system.

After being traded to Florida in the Kris Versteeg deal, he had a breakout season in 2014-15, scoring 19 goals.

He was traded to his hometown Boston Bruins for Reilly Smith the following summer and had a 13-goal season before things broke down. He scored two goals in 58 games in 2016-17 and had his contract bought out. He went to camp as a tryout with New Jersey last season and made the team, but scored three goals in 33 games.

So what went right in Florida, and what went wrong in Boston?

Hayes isn’t sure, but he suspects it has to do with confidence.

“People say it’s pro sports and you never lose your confidence, but I think you’re going to have ups and downs,” Hayes said. “You have to get your confidence back, get your scoring touch back and be effective.”

When the Bruins bought out the physically imposing winger’s contract, general manager Don Sweeney theorized the game was getting faster and Hayes was having a hard time keeping up.

He isn’t buying that explanation.

“I really don’t think it’s an issue,” Hayes said. “I’ve always had confidence in my ability. If you’re not the fastest guy, you just have to be able to find a way to keep the pace and put yourself in a good spot. That’s something I think I can do pretty well.”

When Hayes comes to Penguins camp, he’ll see more than a few familiar faces. Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin and recently signed minor league goalie John Muse were two of his teammates on the BC championship team.

If Hayes wants to spend the season alongside Dumoulin in the NHL and not Muse in the AHL, he’ll have to have a good camp.

He’ll have to beat out a young winger like Zach Aston-Reese or Dominik Simon for a spot or convince the Penguins to keep 14 forwards on the roster. Beyond that, he could make a good first impression and put himself at the front of the call-up line.

“I think it’s like that everywhere in the pro sports world,” Hayes said. “It’s about opportunity and making sure you make the best of your opportunity. That’s what you have to do on a consistent basis.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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