Rangers Keeping Hayes & Zuccarello Would Be Mistake

There is probably no way to know how seriously to take the recent reports that the New York Rangers have engaged pending free-agent forwards Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello in talks about contract extensions.

Perhaps the club has made earnest attempts to keep both players, rather than devote its focus to attempting to deal them to contenders before Monday’s 3:00 P.M. ET deadline. Perhaps the front office is doing it for cosmetic reasons, an effort to show fans that they value a pair of players who have mostly performed admirably in their time in Blueshirts. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

Whatever the case, the Rangers need to stop, if they haven’t already.

Not trading both players as rentals for the best possible returns would mark a dangerous departure from the disciplined rebuild management has undertaken since last February. With a threadbare AHL outfit struggling to an alarming degree, it should be obvious to all involved that keeping either or both players simply isn’t the way to go at this point.

Again, there’s no way to know just how serious the Rangers are about giving extensions to Hayes and Zuccarello, but it’s difficult to understand why the club would even entertain the possibility (creating more urgency for potential trade partners, perhaps?). With both players seeking long contracts for big dollars and their current team likely years away from serious contention, their true value is as trade chips.

Kevin Hayes
Kevin Hayes, New York Rangers, Mar. 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The idea of extending Zuccarello seems the more puzzling one in this equation. Yes, the beloved Norwegian has played outstanding hockey since recently discussing his future with management, apparently accepting whatever fate comes his way and no longer allowing the possibility of leaving the only NHL team he’s played for to weigh upon him. Recording seven goals and 15 assists in his past 16 games, Zucc has turned in one of his most productive stretches as a Ranger, helping to power a dynamic top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider that has at times been the sole reason the Blueshirts have been competitive from game to game.

A desire to keep that unit together, though, represents the kind of short-sighted thinking the front office needs to avoid. Zuccarello’s impeccable timing for a hot streak has immeasurably lifted his marketability just before the trade deadline in a season in which he has endured offensive droughts and struggled with injury. The past 16 games have served as a reminder of Zuccarello’s potential effect on a team’s offense.

Zuccarello, Hayes Extensions Too Much for Rangers

A second-round pick and mid-level prospect should be a reasonable offer for No. 36 at this point, and one that the Rangers should probably accept. Is a first-round pick out there for the diminutive winger? Perhaps not, but the fact that his play has been good enough to even ask the question speaks to his value on the rental market.

Possibly seeking a five-year extension after accepting a hometown discount of four years and $18 million rather than be traded at the 2015 deadline, the 31-year-old Zuccarello has likely seen his time on Broadway come to an end. That is, if the Rangers see the folly in extending the commitment, be it now or after the season.

The decision on Hayes might be more complicated, give his age (26) and status as an ascending player. Trading a big center who has steadily improved each season and has found the commitment to improving his craft in the offseason is a difficult one. Is it counterproductive to automatically turn all of your best players into draft picks and prospects just because you’re “in a rebuild?”

In this case, the decision should be to go ahead and do just that. Hayes is believed to be looking for six or seven years, and the club passed on giving him a five-year extension last summer. Such a deal is likely to cost $42-45 million, and the reconstructing Rangers aren’t in a place to make that kind of a commitment to a good-but-not-great player.

Mats Zuccarello
Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello [photo: Amy Irvin]
More importantly, the return on Hayes should be a good one. A first-round pick and better-than-average prospect or two should be the expected haul for general manager Jeff Gorton. And judging by the mess in Hartford, boy does the organization need it.

At 21-25-5, the Wolf Pack are last in the AHL’s eight-team Atlantic Division, terrible defensively and challenged offensively. Alarmingly, the dysfunction has pulled down two highly regarded prospects that the Rangers still see as part of their future core.

Defenseman Libor Hajek, the key piece of the return in the Ryan McDonagh trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning last winter, is a ghastly minus-25 and has no goals and five assists in 54 games. Center Lias Andersson, the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft who the Rangers envisioned as an eventual two-way force, is minus-24, with six goals and 14 assists in 36 contests.

Rangers Desperate for More Future Assets

The struggles of two of the club’s supposed top prospects and an almost total lack of organizational depth should make the question of what to do with the sought-after Hayes and Zuccarello crystal clear. Selling off just to sell off isn’t a winning strategy. Neither is overvaluing the present in this case – especially when your top minor-league team is nearly devoid of NHL-ready talent and manned to a large extent by roster-filling journeymen.

The Lightning’s player development system, the Rangers are not.

Jeff Gorton
Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

So when/if the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins, Columbus Blue Jackets and/or Winnipeg Jets come calling in the next few days, “gracious” enough to want to give up future assets for Hayes or Zuccarello, the Blueshirts’ focus should be on creating a bidding war – not capitulating on contract extensions that don’t serve the current mission well at all.

A big offseason offer for free-agent star Artemi Panarin? That’s a horse of a different color. Paying big to keep the not-so-great recent past somewhat intact? No. It’s time to bid farewell to Hayes and Zucc – realizing that their departure could provide one final highlight in the form of desperately needed building blocks for the Blueshirts’ future.