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Defenseman Hayes looking forward to opportunity with Utica Comets

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
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Posted 3/22/23

Zack Hayes has racked up a few miles during his third pro hockey season.

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Defenseman Hayes looking forward to opportunity with Utica Comets


UTICA  Zack Hayes has racked up a few miles during his third pro hockey season.

Since the end of November, the 23-year-old defenseman has been involved in two trades and been a member of three American Hockey League teams, including the Utica Comets. In November, he was dealt from the the Vegas Golden Knights organization to the Carolina Hurricanes, moving from the team’s AHL affiliates in Henderson, Nevada and Chicago.

Then on March 10, the physical defenseman from Calgary was obtained by the Comets at the AHL’s trade/loan deadline to help bolster the team’s defensive group. Utica continues to make a push for one of the five playoff spots in the North Division with the regular-season winding down.

“It was one of those things that maybe we weren’t sure if would happen or not. It kind of just happened,” Hayes said following Tuesday’s practice with the Comets. “With those things you just don’t know. But, I’m very excited for the opportunity here now.”

Hayes is among a couple new faces for the Comets, who have some roster change in recent months. Timur Ibragimov, who was obtained by parent club New Jersey as part of the deal with standout Timo Meier, has also been a contributor for the Comets. Defenseman Santeri Hatakka (working his way back from an injury) and goalie Zachary Emond (out for the season) have not appeared with Utica. Forward Jayce Hawyrluk, who obtained the same day as Hayes, was working through visa-related considerations as of Tuesday, according to Comets coach Kevin Dineen.

In a twist, Hayes was dealt for forward Jack Dugan, who he was teammates with in Henderson. Hayes said he didn’t know right away that he and Dugan were traded for each other.

Hayes said he knew defenseman Jarrod Gourley and played against goalie Isaac Poulter in juniors in Canada. He said he texted with both so “it wasn’t a huge surprise” when he first joined the team. While not familiar with the rest of the team, he said the group has been welcoming.

“They’re all great guys so far,” Hayes said. “They really want to include you in everything: Dinners, cards, whatever it is.”

Hayes said he had “no clue” about Utica before the trade. He’ll likely play in his first game at the Adirondack Bank Center this weekend. Utica has home games at 7 p.m. Friday vs. Syracuse and 7 p.m. Saturday against Rochester.

Utica (30-23-6-2 overall) is in a battle for positioning in the North with Syracuse with 11 regular-season games remaining. Utica and Syracuse each have 68 points and occupy the second and third spots in the division with five total meetings remaining. Rochester is five points back in fourth place following an overtime setback to Syracuse on Tuesday. A surging Belleville is in fifth with 61 points while Laval had 60 points entering Wednesday. 

Hayes, who has played five games with Utica, has an assist and isn’t one to shy away from the physical aspects of the game. For example, he got into a brief fight with Laval’s Nolan Yarmenko in Saturday’s 4-1 loss.

Hayes is considered “a strong, sturdy, meat-and-potatoes defender,” Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon said in a recent interview. He brings similar attributes as Nikita Okhotiuk, who was involved in the New Jersey trade.

“Especially being a new face in the room, it is one of those things where you have to grow into with being vocal,” Hayes said. “But, I definitely try to lead by example. It is very easy to say things and not do it and expect others to try and do it. Once that you prove that you do what you preach, then guys understand that and follow that.”

He joins a Comets defensive group that includes veterans Robbie Russo and Tyler Wotherspoon as well some prospects in Simon Nemec and Reilly Walsh. Gourley, Michael Vukjoevic (injured) and Jeremy Groleau are also in the mix.

“It is a good solid group,” Hayes said. “There’s a good veteran presence that you can really lean on. Then you have the younger guys that have lots of skill.”


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