With Derek Stepan only three compulsory games away from a return to the Rangers lineup and Derick Brassard firmly entrenched as the Rangers second line center, questions have already begun to surface about what will be best for Kevin Hayes’ development.
Hayes has had a fairly promising start to his NHL career amid difficult circumstances. Asked to start his big league career in a position that isn’t his best and in the Rangers’ weakest position, Hayes has struggled in the face-off circle winning a feeble 24.6% of his draws. On the flip side, Hayes has shown excellent skill on the puck, a willingness to play both ends of the rink and composure on the puck that isn’t seen from most rookies.
The immediate problem for Hayes isn’t too dissimilar to that of Anthony Duclair. When Stepan returns, Hayes best chance of meaningful minutes and quick development would be on the wing. With Stepan, Brassard and Dominic Moore all established, the Rangers top three centers are set and with Chris Mueller making an immediate impact (including on face-offs) Hayes may not see time up the middle barring injury. Then again, the Rangers are stacked on the wing, particularly in their top nine, which is where both Duclair and Hayes will need to play.
Hayes can play center and he has promised that he’ll improve in the faceoff circle – an admirable and open declaration – but on a team that struggles to win face-offs even with top line center Derek Stepan in the line-up, Hayes’s struggles won’t be tolerated for long. Can the Rangers accommodate a talent such as Hayes without sufficient faceoff skills and/or on a line unsuitable for his skills and long term development?
Hayes has shown he has tremendous upside and has the size, skill and maturity to make quick strides but he may be best off in Hartford where his obvious weaknesses can be better tolerated. Without clear improvement in the faceoff circle, Hayes’ best bet to stick in New York (in the short term) is to put together three strong offensive games ahead of Derek Stepan’s return and inadvertently force Anthon Duclair back to junior. There’s only room for one young prospect to be carried and/or be in and out of the line-up for now and even that isn’t an ideal situation.
Barring stunning production, Kevin Hayes is likely headed to Hartford for a spell in the AHL, a move that may not be popular among the fan base. Sometimes however, the best moves for both the long and short term, aren’t always the popular ones.