Let me start off by saying what’s been on my mind for a while. How long exactly? Try since February of last season. There are many different perspectives on what needs to happen going forward for the Rangers. I’m here to tell you parting with Kevin Hayes would be the wrong move. Here’s why.
A lot went wrong last year in a disappointing ’17-18 without the postseason for the first time since ’09-10. However, Hayes wasn’t one of them. He was a bright spot in a season of turmoil. In fact, he more than anyone deserved to win the Steven McDonald Award. He put out the extra effort that personifies the prestigious award that’s supposed to honor the one Blueshirt, who goes above and beyond the call of duty. Instead, fans voted with their hearts, selecting Henrik Lundqvist. Nothing against the franchise netminder. But he wasn’t as consistent as Hayes, who gave an honest effort most nights while facing stiff competition as the team’s match-up center.
On a club that didn’t pack much punch, Hayes showed marked improvement at the center position. Brutally honest with his assessment about needing to shoot the puck more, he accomplished it by recording a career high 25 goals, finishing tied for second with former Ranger Michael Grabner. Only Mika Zibanejad had more goals, notching a team best 27 while anchoring the top line. Zibanejad is a streaky finisher, who did his best work a man up. He paced the team in power play goals with 14. A terrific number considering he missed 10 games due mostly to a concussion.
While Zibanejad should produce as a number one center, he doesn’t have the tough assignments the well rounded Hayes gets. Let’s put it this way. Zibanejad will never be confused with Patrice Bergeron in his end. The evidence supports that argument. Of his 47 points, 21 came on the power play. His even strength production was okay, going 13-12-25. He added one shorthanded assist. Overall, it sounds okay until you get to his plus/minus rating. His minus-23 was the worst among Rangers forwards. Only recently re-signed defenseman Brady Skjei was worse finishing minus-27 in a uneven sophomore year. If the 2018-19 Rangers are to improve under rookie coach David Quinn, both Zibanejad and Skjei will need to be a lot better five-on-five.
When one assesses the current roster, there aren’t many effective even strength players. Hayes stands out as one due to the position he plays, along with the increased role he had under former coach Alain Vigneault. He did many things wrong to earn his walking papers, but utilizing Hayes in a checking role wasn’t one of them. The 26-year old excelled in his fourth season. Despite adjusting on the fly to an assignment ex-Ranger Derek Stepan once was suited for, he proved his worth throughout the year.
At times, he can be a frustrating player. But it really clicked in Year 4. That’s why I’m against the silly notion created by obnoxious, washed up columnists that the Rangers would be better off trading him. Of his 44 points, Hayes produced most at even strength going 17-17-34, while adding a team best two shorthanded goals. That means that 36 of 44 came outside of the man-advantage where he still managed to record a career high six power play goals. That was impressive considering he wasn’t always used due to personnel, which included ex-Blueshirt Rick Nash. Mats Zuccarello and Pavel Buchnevich were used much more along with sniper Zibanejad, and net front presence Chris Kreider.
Hayes saw his ice-time increase by almost a full minute, averaging 17:21 per game compared with 16:34 the previous season. Vigneault showed more trust in the lanky big man, who possesses the puck quite well. He’s the number one penalty killing option with Jesper Fast, who brings a strong work ethic to the rink. It makes sense to team them up at even strength on a solid checking line. Ryan Spooner or Lias Andersson could be a good fit. That’s if the coaching staff decides to keep Filip Chytil at center with Hayes still part of the roster.
Right now, GM Jeff Gorton has two players left to re-sign. Both Hayes and Spooner have arbitration dates if something can’t be worked out. Even with the future at center in good hands thanks to 2017 first round picks Andersson and Chytil, it’s not a bad idea to keep Hayes around. He brings something that no other current Ranger can. Maybe Andersson can become the next match-up center. But it would be unrealistic to expect that of the Swede in his first full season.
The issue is Hayes’ asking price. Supposedly, he’s looking for an AAV of $6 million over six years. If the Rangers commit to him, he would be signed through 2024. Similar to Skjei, who’s two years younger. He received an AAV of $5.25 million over six years. An investment on a young player, who is vital to the franchise’s future.
If you read between the lines, the organization may not be willing to sign Hayes for that long a term. They also have 20-year old center prospect Brett Howden at their disposal. A former Lightning first round pick in 2016, who could project as a two-way pivot. He is only 20. There’s no reason to rush him unless he blows them away in training camp. Howden was part of the blockbuster trade that netted D prospect Libor Hajek along with a first round pick this past June, plus a conditional second in 2019.
Vladislav Namestnikov also came over in the deal that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Bolts. Both re-upped long-term with the versatile Miller receiving an average of $5.25 million over the next five years. Though a more productive player at this point than Hayes, Miller can be exasperating. He had another poor showing in the playoffs, finishing with two goals and six assists in 17 games for Tampa. His playoff career is mind numbing with only three goals scored in 57 games. He was still making the same mistakes that got him traded. Even playing with elite talent, he was eventually moved off a line that featured Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in Tampa’s crushing Game Seven defeat to the eventual champion Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final.
Sometimes, you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone. Unless they’re certain Hayes can be replaced, the Rangers should pay him. Maturing as a player with more responsibility, he should only improve. His career high in points is 49, established in ’16-17. Even before Vigneault turned him into a checking center, Hayes was performing much better at even strength. Of the 17 goals he scored, 15 came at even strength with another coming shorthanded, while the other was on the power play. He was barely used there due to Miller. Hayes also recorded a combined 26 assists at even strength and shorthanded in ’16-17, with only an additional six on the power play.
There’s a reason he’s been on the plus-side of the ledger in all four seasons. Most impressively, he wound up plus-one last season with a awful defense, where both D and forwards were lost. That included Zuccarello, who showed signs of slowing down. Even though he led them in scoring again with 53 points, Zuccarello was too predictable at times with his passing. A superb playmaker due to his patience and vision, he tallied a team high 37 assists including 21 at even strength, and 16 on the man-advantage. While the production is still in line with what he’s done, it’s worth noting that no Rangers forward received more ice-time (18:55).
Let’s not forget he’ll turn 31 entering the final year of a contract that pays him an AAV of $4.5 million. In other words, the popular Ranger probably isn’t part of the plan over the long haul. The organization will have a hard decision to make come next February. Zuccarello only recorded 178 shots, scoring 16 goals for a shooting percentage of 9.0. Interestingly, Hayes had six less shots, but hit a high percentage (14.5) with his 25 goals a career mark. That was mostly due to an increase during the second half. The production is excellent considering how he was deployed. Even though his Corsi was a 45.9, it was mostly due to his zone starts. He started in the defensive zone 57.3 percent of the time compared to just 42.7 percent in the offensive zone. He also made a improvement on face-offs winning over 50.0 percent for the first time in his career. He took 1,112 draws, going 562-and-550 (50.5).
When you carefully assess what Hayes brings to the table, it would be careless to move him. They should keep him and see how things progress. There’s a process when it comes to developing young takebr such as Andersson and Chytil. Even Pavel Buchnevich has room for improvement due to a penchant to pass more than shoot. The Rangers need to trust the process.