Kevin Hayes, hockey god
I admit it, I was wrong. I mused over the summer that one of the best options the Rangers had that could help them address the numerous flaws on the roster was to move a stuck in neutral Kevin Hayes. Turns out Jeff Gorton’s faith, some Alain Vigneault tough love and Kevin Hayes’ summer training plan were much better decisions than my trade intentions.
What we are seeing now is patience being rewarded and just why the entire NHL went hard after Hayes when he decided Chicago wasn’t his original six destination of choice. Gorton re-upped Hayes on a two year, $5.2 million dollar deal and he’s being rewarded handsomely for doing so. There’s not many players offering better value (even on a bridge deal) than Hayes. Hayes will still be under team control when his deal expires as he’ll still be an RFA in two summers time – good times.
Hayes is averaging almost a point/game, he’s often been the offensive spark the Rangers needed (well, amongst many, many sparks) and he’s improved the weaker parts of his game as well. He’s backchecking, playing better defensively all round – heck, he’s not even a liability at faceoffs any more.
His decision making has been more clinical; he’s holding on to the puck just long enough and he’s starting to finish with regularity. He’s still making the highlight reel passes he’s always been capable of but you get the sense that things are starting to click for the big forward. That Henrik Lundqvist even likened him to Jaromir Jagr earlier this season speaks volumes to how far his game has come in a short space of time.
Part of Hayes’ coming out party this season hasn’t actually been his doing. That’s a nod in the direction of Gorton and Vigneault as both have ensured Hayes is in a better situation to succeed this season. Over the past two seasons, the Rangers, as a team, have had a pass first mentality. The past two editions have not had enough finishers. That’s not the case this year.
Jeff Gorton’s roster re-tooling this summer has seen the team add Brandon Pirri, Michael Grabner, Mika Zibanejad and Jimmy Vesey up front. Grabner and Zibanejad are 2nd and 3rd on the Rangers in shots while Pirri and Vesey are very much shoot-first players and have made a significant impact to the Rangers overall style of play.
So far this season Haye’s most common linemates have been Grabner and JT Miller. The individual styles of the three forwards complement each other so well. Grabner’s speed causes defenders to back off while Miller’s busy and heavy style also creates space and pressures the opposition into mistakes. Both players get in to the offensive zone quickly and cause havoc. All this means more space for Hayes to use his playmaking ability and this line’s intriguing chemistry has been a huge part of why both Hayes and Miller have been exploding offensively.
I honestly thought Hayes was the obvious choice to sacrifice in a trade this offseason. Given the obvious talent (and size) at his disposal he seemed the most likely and expendable forward that could bring back a good return. I still believe that would have been the case given the damaged goods label Rick Nash carried through the summer. With that said, I couldn’t be happier Gorton and Vigneault found a way to maximise Hayes’ talents. I never doubted his talent, I just thought he may never fulfil it in NYC.
Hayes’ shooting percentage will obviously tumble – 34.8% is clearly not sustainable – but he’s doing his damage in just 16 minutes/game all the while eight forwards are getting more powerplay time per game than Hayes. Despite those numbers not adding up, Hayes above all else has been a model of consistency – something I hadn’t seen from Hayes since he became a Ranger.
Only twice in the last eleven games has Hayes failed to register a point. He’s had a four-game goal scoring streak and has only failed to register a shot on goal twice in the last eleven games (four times all season). Indeed, if Hayes starts putting more pucks on net – still his biggest fault – he may even produce more. Particularly given his linemates’ propensity for hanging around the net.
I’m delighted the Rangers committed to Hayes. His style blends well with the more shoot first roster that Gorton has put together and he’s clearly growing in confidence on the ice. His upside is starting to develop into production and it’s fair to ask if he could keep growing further.
The most successful teams in the modern NHL have boasted a strong collection of centers. The Rangers couldn’t be in a better situation with their stable of centers right now and moving forward. Can Hayes keep up his pace with his unrealistic underlying numbers? Probably not, but based on his start to the year, with a little more ice time and with the team rolling so well as a whole, there’s no reason he can’t flirt with a 60-70 point season if Vigneault keeps putting him in the right situations to succeed.