I’ve been all over Kevin Hayes for a while. It’s no secret that the second-year forward has been a huge disappointment for the Blueshirts. His struggles continued in Monday’s 5-3 road loss at Nashville. He was minus-one and lost seven of eight face-offs.
In December, Hayes has only two assists in 12 games. Aside from the lack of production, he has been one of the culprits defensively. There have been too many instances where he has failed to pick up his man resulting in goals against. An unselfish player, he has also been guilty of bad turnovers due to over passing.
But as we learned today, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault went out of his way to criticize Hayes. Indicating that Hayes would be a “healthy scratch” for the first time this season when they visit the Lightning tomorrow, Vigneault didn’t mince words.
“I think we all have our tipping points, and I think Kevin has had an extra-long leash, especially considering [center Derek Stepan] was out for quite some time,” Vigneault told reporters after a team workout before traveling to Tampa. “But there’s just nothing going on. At the end of the day, we’re at the point now where we have to make some decisions in the best interests of the team.”
Following a promising rookie season that saw him finish with 17 goals and 28 helpers for 45 points in 79 contests, much was expected of Hayes. But the 23-year old former BC alum has not come close with just six goals and 11 helpers in 37 games. He is without a goal in 16 straight. His last one came in a home win over Nashville which was also the last time he registered two points.
“When you go through a season, there are phases when you’re trying to develop, you’re trying to work, as you’re trying to win — winning is obviously the final component to everything,” Vigneault said. “But in those early on there, you’re trying to figure out and find out about people. In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him and what we felt he could do were very high. Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that.
“Did we over-estimate his possibilities? I don’t know, time will tell. But I do know that what I’m seeing now, and what we’re seeing now, is not good enough.”
Most notably, Vigneault expressed disappointment in another aspect of Hayes. One that raised eyebrows.
“I think part of work is not just on the ice and off the ice, but it’s in the preparation — preparation that permits you to execute on the ice. When I say that we’ve reached our tipping point, me and management, those are decisions that we discuss. Just felt that this time, this is the right thing for him to do.”
What Vigneault is likely referring to is what Hayes does off the ice between games. That is not what you want to hear from a patient coach who has given Hayes chance after chance to figure it out. It’s well documented that he once misbehaved when he was at Boston College. He’s known as a cocky kid who doesn’t lack for confidence. When asked by the press about the criticism, here was Hayes’ response:
“The reason why I’m here — I’m confident in my abilities. Things aren’t going my way, aren’t going the team’s way, I’m not going to switch. There [are] things I need to switch, get pucks in their end, do things a little bit better, but I’m not going to stray away from what I bring to the table. I’m confident with what I have.”
“My game isn’t nearly where I want it to be. Goals and aspirations coming into a season, and I haven’t even come close to mine. I’m struggling right now, so take it day-by-day, see how it goes.”
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that Hayes’ game has fallen apart. He hasn’t found chemistry with anyone. Vigneault tried him out on the wing with Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan but that was a short lived experiment. After he put Hayes back at center, he showed signs anchoring the third line. By far his best play came on the third line when he totaled nine points (4-5-9) over a 10-game stretch between 10/22 thru 11/14.
Stepan went down 13 days later forcing Vigneault to scramble to find the right combo. He also made an example of rookie Oscar Lindberg sitting him out once due to undisciplined penalties. With Hayes out for tomorrow, that means Emerson Etem returns to the lineup. What Vigneault wants is for Hayes to learn a lesson.
“I think I like players that project that confidence, whether it be that swagger or that cockiness — but you have to be able to go on the ice and perform,” he added. “Right now, we need all our top foot soldiers, all our top guys, to bring their A-game to the table. Kevin is one of our younger players that can help us and can complement what our top soldiers are supposed to do.
“For us to be at this stage right now, it’s obviously because we’re very unhappy with the way he’s played so far.”
It’ll be interesting to see if this changes anything. Hayes won’t play again until January 2 in the new calendar year when the Rangers visit the Panthers. That’s assuming Vigneault reinserts him. Logic dictates he will over Viktor Stalberg. With the team struggling in all aspects, is this the message that turns things around? We’ll have to wait and see.