Rangers & Hayes: The Final Countdown?

It is only a matter of time… or is it? Returning from an upper-body injury that has kept him off the ice since Jan. 2, pending free agent Kevin Hayes slid back into the New York Rangers lineup for their matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday. Perfect timing for general manager Jeff Gorton to market his star center with roughly four weeks until the trade deadline.

There is no questioning the effort that Hayes has put forth for the organization in his five seasons in New York, particularly in the last two seasons as one of the most vital players on the squad. With the team rebuilding and with no legitimate Stanley Cup run on the horizon, the Rangers don’t have space for Hayes.

“Obviously it’s going to come up a lot more now than it has, and there has been more chatter about who needs what, who needs a center, and all that, but I’ve been able to keep my mind pretty clear,” Hayes said after Sunday’s practice before the Flyers game. “Everybody knows when the trade deadline is and what that means. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the truth.

At the same time, everybody knows how I feel about wanting to stay. I’ve loved my five years here. I love the organization, the guys, the staff, the city, the fans. I really can’t see myself anywhere else. But it’s also kind of out of my hands.”

Kevin Hayes (Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

A one-franchise player like Hayes will be uneasy about the idea of moving, but it’s how he’s handled it on the ice that shows the type of person he is. Unlike Mats Zuccarello, who nearly slid into a dark hole and struggled to play through trade rumors, Hayes turned up the tempo and played for himself.

Despite missing nine games from his injury, Hayes ranks third in scoring on the Rangers with 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists). The Boston-native failed to register a point in the two games before his injury but managed to ride a nine-game point streak where he accumulated 16 points (5 goals, 11 assists). His value is a no-brainer and he has solidified himself as the Rangers’ greatest trade bait.

If Panarin is the Target, Hayes Must Be on the Market

Taking into consideration the players under contract for the 2019-20 season, while also anticipating a Brendan Smith buyout and a Zuccarello trade, the Rangers are faced with who to squish into the almost $23 million cap space.

Following the Rangers’ typical 13 forward, seven defensemen and two goalies structure, leaving openings for three forwards and four defensemen. Columbus Blue Jacket, Artemi Panarin is on the radar as a perfect fit for the rebuild, but he’ll come at a hefty price.

Artemi Panarin Blue Jackets
Artemi Panarin, Columbus Blue Jackets, Feb. 22, 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Panarin will likely be chasing a max contract, hovering somewhere around an AAV of $11.5 million, which diminishes Hayes’ chances at the contract he’s reportedly seeking. According to Rick Carpinello of The Athletic, the Boston College product is seeking around the $6-$7 million range on a long-term deal. The reality is, there isn’t enough room for the both of them.

This type of deal, along with the targeted Panarin agreement, would leave the Rangers with barely any cap space to fill the final six spots. And a financial miscalculation like that wouldn’t put a rebuilding team in an easy position. This is also setting aside deals that could be made with Pavel Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk and Chris Kreider.

Should the Rangers Gamble in Keeping Kevin Hayes?

If there were superlatives for hockey teams at the end of each season, Kevin Hayes would have won most improved player three years running. He’s expanded upon his hockey IQ and implemented it seamlessly into his game, having more of an impact with each season he has under his belt. With his 27th birthday looming in May, will Hayes remain a 40-50-point player or continue to improve?

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From his third season to his fourth season in New York, the 6-foot-5 center scored eight more goals and five more power play goals in the same amount of games played. In addition, he also set career records for shots and time on ice in the 2017-18 season. This season, he’s already accumulated four more assists than last season’s total in nearly half the games played.

He may not be as physical as he once was, but Hayes has made a name for himself as an established center in the NHL. Along with his apparent desire to continue playing for the Rangers, I have no concerns about whether or not Hayes will give 100%. Unfortunately, his value is too great not to flash his talents to playoff-contending teams who could use him.

It wouldn’t shock me if Gorton hung on to Hayes until the final 24 hours before the trade deadline, as other headlining pending free agents are dealt with first. But we can only hope Gorton is aware of the player he has on the table, and if he’s going to let him go, it better be for what he’s worth.