As the Rangers look to accelerate the rebuild, the most obvious hole on the roster that isn’t on the blue line is the 2C spot. Mika Zibanejad is the 1C, and he’s certainly earned that role. But beyond him, the Rangers have a lot of question marks at the 2C role. The in-house options are there, but none are guarantees. The only player, aside from Jack Hughes falling to the Rangers at #2, that can fill this role is Filip Chytil, and while talented, he hasn’t shown that he should be staying at center or can handle that kind of role yet.
With Matt Duchene the primary UFA center target and likely to price himself as such, the Rangers will be looking for cheaper options. It’s arguable that Hayes is the next best UFA center on the market, and he clearly has a history with the Rangers. If the Blueshirts can’t find a 2C filler, Hayes could be a good fit.
Hayes won’t require a trade to bring him (back) to New York. This allows the Rangers to use their chips elsewhere to address the blue line, where there are no viable free agents. The 27 year old center is likely headed towards a lengthy deal, so he won’t be cheap on the UFA market, but he will certainly be cheaper than Duchene.
Based on Evolving Wild’s free agent calculator –grain of salt: hasn’t been proven yet but the folks behind it are A+ analysis folks– Hayes is likely headed towards a 5-7 year deal. At five years EW has him at $5.85 million per year, six years at $5.87 million, and seven years at $6.7 million. Naturally that seven year deal is one to avoid, but that five/six year deal could be mutually beneficial. Even with Panarin as a target, the Rangers can make this work with the right trades.
I don’t need to tell you this, but Hayes was with the Rangers for 4+ years before he was dealt to Winnipeg at the deadline. Before Alain Vigneault unceremoniously thrusted him into a defensive 3C role, he was moving towards 50 points and 20 goals as the 2C. Under David Quinn, he put up 14-28-42 in just 51 games. That’s an 82-game pace of 22-45-67 point pace. It can be argued that his struggles with Winnipeg actually benefited the Rangers in this regard.
He’s also not that injury prone. He’s never played a full 82, but he’s never been below 76 games either. Worth noting.
He’s under rated and great value
It’s hard to argue that a player who is projected to get a six year deal at almost $6 million a year is a great value. But when you look at Duchene’s projected $7+ million, you find value, especially when there isn’t much of a statistical difference:
From an offensive contribution point of view, Duchene has the edge here. However it is worth noting that Hayes has an edge when it comes to keeping possession exiting the defensive zone, a key aspect of transition hockey.
He gives the kids a chance to grow
As mentioned above, the worst thing for a prospect’s development is to throw him into a situation where he won’t succeed. We don’t know if Chytil can/will succeed as the 2C. But we also don’t want him thrown to the wolves with no safety net. If he doesn’t succeed there, who else will be the 2C? Lias Andersson doesn’t have the offensive ceiling as Chytil, and Brett Howden struggled mightily after his hot start to the season.
Who else is there? Ryan Strome? That’s less than ideal, although it is at least a step above counting on David Desharnais.
A shorter term stopgap that doesn’t chew up close to $6 million in cap space is likely a better option for the long term rebuild strategy. However what we don’t know is what Jeff Gorton and John Davidson mean by accelerating the rebuild. It’s all speculation at this point. From an on-paper view, Hayes might be a guy that could give them that acceleration to, dare I say, compete again while Henrik Lundqvist is still around.
Of course none of this matter if other holes aren’t addressed first, but we will certainly have a clearer picture of Gorton’s plans in a week. My gut feel is that if they are able to address some blue line issues at the draft, they will spend in free agency. If they can’t address those blue line issues at the draft, then they may be a bit more conservative.