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Anyone watching the Rangers closely since preseason will have seen Kevin Hayes visibly grow and learn on the job. Considered an outside bet to make the Rangers opening night roster, on the back foot because he missed a few games through injury and starting in a position he wasn’t accustomed to playing, despite all this Hayes has done a wonderful job the past six months.

Putting his faceoff inadequacies to one side, Hayes has improved immeasurably. His decision making has become faster and more instinctive while his playmaking and passing have been particularly evident recently. What’s more, the flashes of skill he showed early in the season have been far more frequent recently as Hayes has become a consistent threat in the offensive zone. There have been games recently (encapsulated by the Avalanche victory) where Hayes’ line has been the difference for the Rangers, that’s how far Hayes has come.

Hayes has flashed Rick Nash ability driving to the net and is on course for a very acceptable and productive rookie season as a third line pivot. Sitting eighth in rookie scoring; only one rookie from the top twenty scorers has had less ice time per game highlighting how effective Hayes has been offensively. If Hayes can improve his faceoff effectiveness and shoot a little more he could have a very strong second half.

So how has Hayes become more important to the Rangers than Kreider? It’s an inflammatory comment for sure and arguably has nothing to do with comparing the two players’ on ice performances but Hayes could well be more critical to the Rangers than Kreider. If Kreider falters then the Rangers can still be excited at the current situation they have at the wing position. Rick Nash is dominating the NHL; Mats Zuccarello is (finally?) showing last year wasn’t a flash in the pan while Carl Hagelin has provided excellent depth and value for money. However, it’s beyond the current NHL roster that we need to look.

Anthony Duclair has already shown he can play in the NHL and is more than a point per game since returning to junior. With Pavel Buchnevich enjoying an incredibly strong season in the KHL the Rangers appear to have two more legitimate top six scorers en route to New York without digging deeper in the prospect pool. If Kreider falters or his development stalls it would be a big setback for the Rangers for sure but no longer a death knell to the franchise’s ability to contend.

On the other hand consider the Rangers’ situation had Kevin Hayes not provided capable depth at center this season. Even with Hayes, center is still a position of concern but without him there is a huge hole in the line-up. Factor in the time that Derek Stepan has missed and his uneven performances and really, offensively only Derick Brassard has been a season long positive influence at center. Beyond the NHL roster the Rangers have options but nothing that can be labelled a guarantee. Oscar Lindberg appears a solid bottom six option but no current organisational center prospect appears guaranteed to making the NHL on a permanent basis. Not even Lindberg.

Chris Kreider has been much better lately and this is certainly not a post to talk down his ability, potential or importance to the Rangers, it’s a nod to the impressive development Kevin Hayes has undertaken in six short months. Kreider can still be a dominant forward and if both players develop as hoped the Rangers should be in an envious position up front for the foreseeable future.


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