What J.T. Miller’s new contract could mean for Hayes

Earlier today, the Lightning announced on Twitter that they had re-signed J.T. Miller to a new contract. The restricted free agent who the Rangers included in a selloff with Ryan McDonagh at the trade deadline, received a five-year contract worth an average cap hit of $5.25 million per season.

The 25-year old forward had 10 goals and eight assists in 19 games following the trade. He finished with new personal bests in goals (23), assists (35) and points (58) in 82 games. He went 13-27-40 with the Rangers prior to the trade.

Even though he had good success playing on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Miller again struggled in the postseason. He only scored two goals in 17 playoff games, making it three goals in 57 career games. A dismal output for such a talented player. Overall, he went 2-6-8 with 15 penalty minutes in three rounds with the Bolts, who were eliminated in seven by eventual champ Washington.

Miller has been a productive player throughout his career. It’s now three consecutive seasons that he’s scored at least 22 goals. For a second straight campaign, he went over 50 points going from a previous best of 56 in ’16-17 to 58 in ’17-18.

Is he worth it? I’m not sure. It’s market value. He’ll need to be more consistent. Particularly in the playoffs where Tampa Bay is in search of a second Stanley Cup. At last check, they’re still pursuing free agent John Tavares with a interview set up later this week. How can they even afford the Islanders captain, who spoke to Toronto on Tuesday? I have no clue. Let’s just hope he doesn’t go there. It would be like forming a super team. An NBA term I’m sick of.

The interesting aspect of the Miller deal is how it impacts former Ranger teammate Kevin Hayes. A year older, the 26-year old pivot had his best goal output achieving a personal high with 25 to finish tied for second with ex-Ranger Michael Grabner. That trailed only Mika Zibanejad, who pumped home 27 in 72 games.

Hayes did it differently by being a better five-on-five player than Zibanejad. Seventeen of the 25 goals came at even strength with an additional two coming while shorthanded. So, 19 of his 25 were attained while either even up or a man short. He didn’t receive as much power play time until late in the season following the trades of Miller and Rick Nash. He fared well winding up with a career high six power play goals.

His point total of 44 isn’t overly impressive. However, consider the quality of competition he faced. Under former coach Alain Vigneault, Hayes was used in a checking role as a match-up center. He often went up against the opposition’s very best, doing a solid job. On a team that struggled defensively, he managed to finish plus-one in 76 games. Before he was moved, Miller was minus-one. Grabner went a team best plus-11, tying with Marc Staal. Yes. The veteran everyone wants traded.

Interestingly, Zibanejad finished a dismal minus-23. He wasn’t as effective five-on-five. Of the 27 goals he scored, 14 came on the power play. Thirteen at even strength. The Blueshirts’ top center went 13-12-25 at even strength while going 14-7-21 on the man-advantage. He did pick up one shorthanded assist.

Hayes totaled 34 even strength points going 17-17-34. Only Jesper Fast and team scoring leader Mats Zuccarello came close. Each finished with 31 even strength points. Unlike Zuccarello, who went 1-16-17 on the power play, all Fast’s career high 33 points came either at even strength or shorthanded (2 assists). Grabner had the fourth most with 29 (24-5-29) before going to the Devils. Chris Kreider went 9-16-25 in 58 games. He’s the other effective player at even strength.

So, what’s Hayes’ value? He made $2.6 million in ’17-18 with his contract expiring. Similar to Miller, who made $2.625 million before getting basically double that salary. While Miller has been a more productive player, Hayes is better overall. He plays center, faces the best competition, and has improved on face-offs and defensively.

That merits consideration for a similar contract. The question is how much do the Rangers in a rebuild value him. Hayes is a year away from unrestricted status. Don’t forget Zibanejad is signed for another four years thru 2022 with an AAV of $5.35 million.

One issue for GM Jeff Gorton is that both teenagers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil are young centers. Each will be a key part of the future starting this Fall. While Chytil has a higher ceiling due to his skill, Andersson is a tenacious worker who gets his nose dirty. The kind of player the team has lacked. Entering new coach David Quinn’s first season, you don’t want to waste him on the fourth line. Clearly, he can have a top nine role. But not if both Hayes and Zibanejad are back.

Management might have to make a decision. If not now, then probably during the season. That also goes for Zuccarello, who is in the final year of a contract that pays him $4.5 million. A popular Ranger and teammate, the fact is he’ll turn 31 before the season starts. He will not be a bargain anymore next summer. With the club rebuilding, a player of Zuccarello’s character and work ethic could be more valuable in a trade to a contender. Something that must be explored.

So, what is the plan? Gorton also has tough decisions on Group II free agents Vladislav Namestnikov and Ryan Spooner. Is he planning to keep both? Salary arbitration could decide their fate. Jimmy Vesey is also unsigned but shouldn’t cost a lot. Brady Skjei is restricted. Do they invest long-term in the defenseman or bridge him?

The Rangers have plenty of cap space. They’re near the bottom of the league currently. A rarity. A good chunk of the money will go to their own players. Some of it could go to proven vets who can provide depth and leadership in a secondary role. A few candidates are Devante Smith-Pelly, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Reaves. Would they consider bringing back Anthony Duclair following Chicago not qualifying him. He’s still only 22. But things have sure changed. I see him winding up in a Canadian market such as Vancouver or Ottawa.

As for Hayes, I’d like to keep him. I like what he brings. He definitely proved he was more committed in a unfamiliar role. He’s a big forward who can possess the puck and play in any situation. Something I never envisioned not too long ago. Having that kind of character player is vital in a rebuild. If Chytil develops into a scoring center, maybe Zibanejad becomes expendable. He is an asset when it comes to scoring on the power play where he can unleash his bomb from the off wing. But he does have four years remaining.

The team needs to improve on the blueline. There’s not much out there. I don’t want them overpaying some bandaid anyway. It looks like Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk should be the top pair. That would leave Staal with Neal Pionk. Third pair remains confusing. Brendan Smith will get another opportunity in camp. How healthy will Tony DeAngelo be? Is John Gilmour an NHL defenseman? I’m most curious to see Ryan Lindgren and Libor Hajek.

It should be a interesting summer.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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