Horachek likes development of Jimmy Hayes as net-front presence

CORAL SPRINGS — Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes is a big guy.

At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Hayes is a presence every time he takes to the ice, and Panthers coach Peter Horachek wants to put that presence to good use in the final stretch of the season.

Hayes, a fourth-line winger, played 12 minutes in the Panthers' 5-4 loss to Washington Thursday, but nearly half of that time came on the power play, where Hayes' big frame was parked in front of the net.

Hayes helped the Panthers score a power play goal in the third period Thursday — no small feat, considering that the Panthers are threatening to set the NHL record for worst power play in league history.

The Panthers have 18 power-play goals on the season and a paltry a 9.2 percent success rate with a man advantage. If that rate holds, the Panthers will "best" the current NHL record, set by 1997-1998 Tampa Bay Lightning, who scored on only 9.35 percent of their power plays.

Horachek thinks Hayes can help prevent the Panthers from going into the record book.

"He has good hands. He's not afraid to be out in the high-traffic area, he's not afraid of the puck," Horachek said of the 24-year-old forward Friday after practice at the Panthers' IceDen . "A lot of guys don't really want to be staying in front. He's willing to do that, he's willing to sacrifice and do whatever. I think we'll see more and more out of him."

Hayes' fearlessness and size made him the logical candidate to replace Tomas Kopecky in front of the net after the veteran power forward was injured during the Olympics, but there's more to screening the goalie than merely having a wide backside.

During the Olympic break, Hayes worked with the Panthers' coaching staff on the nuances of playing in front of the net.

"It was nice to have two weeks to work on it. I got to practice every day on it, and adjust myself on where I have to be," Hayes said.

"I think he came back in a really good frame of mind. He practiced really well," Horachek said. "Seeing that he did well when we did it was important to me. Practices are tryouts sometimes. When you see something that works, you want to continue."

Hayes' top priority while in front of the net is screening the goalie from seeing the puck. Again, while his size helps significantly with that, the league's best at screening the goalie weren't necessarily the biggest players on the ice.

Hayes has been able to watch film of former Red Wings winger Tomas Holmstrom, who, while he was playing, was considered the league's best in front of the net, as well as Predators forward Patric Hörnqvist, whom Horachek coached in Nashville.

Hayes also used the two-week break to work with Panthers goalies Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen — and it was their insight that has gone the furthest in this experiment.

Thomas' on-ice help during practice has been especially helpful. Thomas is one of the league's most aggressive and frenetic goalies, and the way Hayes sees it, if he can screen Thomas, he can screen anyone.

"It's nice being able to practice with him and being able to ask him for advice," Hayes said. "He's one of the goalies where he's very aggressive, so he's seeing a lot of pucks, so in practice I'm working my hardest. Hopefully that will continue to develop my ability to play in front."

The Panthers play the Blue Jackets in Columbus Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.