As the New York Rangers get set to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there are many sub-storylines that fans and close observers will be following. How will Pittsburgh’s depleted defense corps handle the speedy, potent Rangers? Will Rick Nash, having scored a career-high 42 goals in the regular season, light the lamp consistently in the postseason? Will Marc-Andre Fleury shake the playoff demons of years past and perform well? Will the Rangers get any production from their power play? When will Kevin Klein return?
One storyline, however, that might be falling a bit under the radar is the play of sensational Rangers rookie Kevin Hayes. The 22-year-old third-line center could just be the key for the Blueshirts against Pittsburgh and (hopefully from the Rangers’ perspective) beyond.
There was optimism that Hayes, mostly a winger in his time at Boston College, could crack the Rangers’ opening night roster when he signed with the club in the off-season. The 6’5″ Hayes was originally a first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, but didn’t see a good career path for himself given the Hawks’ forward depth, so bided his time until he became a free agent, and the Rangers were lucky to swoop him up. Ironically but fortunately, Hayes is now a major part of one of the best and deepest groups of forwards in the NHL.
Not only did Hayes make the Rangers’ roster out of training camp, but he went on to have an outstanding rookie NHL campaign with 17 goals and 28 assists. He also played primarily as New York’s third-line center, a position where he had had less experience coming into the league. Hayes proved himself to be a strong, smart, creative, and responsible player, and as the season progressed, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault entrusted him with more and more ice time in more and more situations.
Hayes — somewhat like Rick Nash though maybe not quite as explosive (yet) — possesses a unique combination of size and skill. He has great hands and is extremely patient with the puck — a remarkable trait for a 22-year-old. Early in the season the signs of his talent were evident, even if his numbers in the first half of the season (5 goals, 10 assists) did not necessarily reflect that.
His effort in all three zones, as well as his visible skill level, gave Vigneault more confidence in him. In turn, Hayes played with more confidence and the numbers began to reflect that. In the season’s final 41 games, Hayes caught fire and tallied 12 goals and 18 assists — double the point production he had in the first 41 games. Rather than hit the wall that many college players hit midway through the NHL season that has so many more games than they are used to playing, Hayes actually got better. He had several highlight-reel moments, including this memorable goal against the rival New York Islanders on March 10.
Hayes Key to Playoff Run
In the postseason, it’s very often role players who come up big. Dominic Moore was one of those players for the Rangers last year. Bryan Bickell was key for the Blackhawks in 2013. And does anyone remember the tear Fernando Pisani went on during Edmonton’s run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006?
For New York this postseason, Hayes could very well be one of those guys, even though he doesn’t appear to be far from stardom (that just speaks to the Rangers’ depth). Against Pittsburgh, one of the most important factors that will determine the Rangers’ success is the extent to which they can take advantage of the Penguins’ weakened group of defensemen. Fast (not talking about Jesper here, though he’s not slow), skilled players in the top 6, like Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, and Mats Zuccarello to name a few, will be a lot for the Penguins to handle.
Going beyond that though, the ability of Hayes and his line-mates — another speed demon in Carl Hagelin, along with the still-quick 39-year-old Martin St. Louis — give the Rangers a level of depth that will allow them to attack Pittsburgh almost non-stop. Hayes, as the center and an emerging playmaker, is the key to that line. Throw in the previously noted playoff performer Dominic Moore as the anchor of the fourth line, and you have quite the forward corps to contend with (even if the fourth line has Tanner Glass, though he has admittedly played better lately).
Hayes has become the Rangers’ secret weapon — though maybe not secret for too much longer, given the way he has been playing — and is critical to their success in the postseason, as they look to capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1994. If he continues to perform as he has lately, the Rangers could be on the cusp of another deep playoff run.