Kevin Hayes gave himself a highlight night on Nov. 6, providing three assists in the New York Rangers’ 5-3 comeback win over the Montreal Canadiens. Hayes is one of a few players, along with the likes of Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist, still left from the team’s “old guard” as it undergoes a rebuild.
Indications are that New York is not done with its rebuild and that more familiar faces to Rangers fans may depart in favor of young blood and future draft picks. While originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks with the 24th overall pick in 2010, Hayes did not play in the NHL until the Rangers acquired him in time for the 2014-15 season, and he has been a part of the Blueshirts since.
Through four seasons, plus the start of 2018-19, Hayes has produced 182 points in his career — 76 goals and 106 assists. Despite a satisfactory performance last season, some feel Hayes has not reached his potential. It does not help he had a slow start to this year prior to the Nov. 6 game — he had just three goals and two assists in the first 14 games.
There may be a reason for why Hayes hasn’t done more than what some may like based on how the Rangers have used him. And while Hayes can be considered an integral part of the franchise for the past number of seasons, and the Rangers have expressed a desire to keep him, it very well likely reaches its end before the season’s conclusion.
Hayes’ Previous Contract Desires
Despite a slow 2015-16, the Rangers gave Hayes a two-year extension following his sophomore campaign. The very next season, Hayes produced one of the most effective lines for the team alongside J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. Hayes produced 49 points that year and 44 points in 2017-18.
Hayes was a restricted free agent this past offseason, and he wanted to get paid with a five-year contract. However, he ended up signing a one-year deal worth $5.175 million, and he will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season.
It’s clear Hayes will be looking for a big contract, and that’s no surprise. He’s 26 and hopefully still has his prime years remaining. Whether it’s NHL, MLB, or NBA, a star athlete with a future still ahead of him and flashed talent will look for as big a contract as possible (just look at MLB’s Manny Machado and Bryce Harper).
Some may feel despite Hayes’ three-assist showing against the Canadiens, he so far has not proven much on the current one-year deal he has right now. While by his statistics it’s a clear solid argument, it’s worth noting how Hayes is used and, quite possibly, plays better.
For his first two seasons in New York, Hayes saw about 60 percent of his 5-on-5 start percentage come within the team’s offensive zone. That was flipped in 2016-17, when about 59 percent of his starts came in the defensive zone — a figure which has remained around the same place since — especially since New York now plays a defense-heavy style under head coach David Quinn.
Since that Miller-Grabner-Hayes line, Hayes has shown talent on a lower line, and while he can play a first or second, the team seems to prefer him on the lower-level lines, where he can be more effective.
Competition from Rangers Youth
On that note, what could be the coup de grace in Hayes’ time in the Big Apple is the very new faces he’s sharing the center position with.
Mika Zibanejad has led this team offensively, taking the center spot on the top line, and he for sure is a leading face of the next Rangers generation. Also in that category is Brett Howden, who has gone from trade throw-in to winning the hearts of everyone from fans to coaching to brass, with heavy hopes he could wear the “C” one day.
Filip Chytil has struggled early, but the team is showing strong faith he will develop. The Rangers have several more developing youths at center; the latest debuted in the Canadiens game — the highly-touted Lias Andersson. While he didn’t put up anything in the points column, he’s expected to make some major noise.
This creates a major logjam at the center position, and if the Rangers are truly focused on their new blood and giving them more ice time to develop, maybe it’s worth it to trade an experienced, 26-year-old Hayes. In fact, trading Hayes could be a win on all sides.
The Blueshirts could send Hayes to a team that’s in need of a center in exchange for a young wing that can bolster the team’s offensive numbers should they not improve, as well as youth or depth and/or draft picks.
The possible trade gets a bonus if the other party is a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The Rangers get more for their must-see rebuild, the contending team gets a solid center for a playoff run and Hayes would get a big opportunity to show he’s more than just a lower-line center and force teams to show him the money in the offseason.
Is Hayes Staying Possible?
Despite the hopes of a big contract this past offseason, what may have played a role in Hayes accepting the one-year deal is that he does seem to have a true love for New York.
And he desires to be with the team he’s been with for all of his early NHL career.
Hayes (cont’d): “I love this organization, I love the city, what the city demands, the determination and hard work. This is where I want to be for my whole entire career. Obviously a long-term deal didn’t get done but I’m hopeful that come the right time, I think it’ll get done.”
— John Giannone (@jaygeemsg) September 15, 2018
There’s plenty of love to go around among Hayes, the Rangers’ fan base and management. Maybe it would be nice to keep Hayes around, but it’s just so hard and trading him makes too much sense. In fact, teams have reportedly already checked in on him.
Kypreos said Hayes getting a lot of attention from teams. Said possibly Jets for a pick or prospect. #NYR
— Matt Calamia (@MattCalamia) October 28, 2018
It’s always possible if New York somehow continues to win and shock the NHL, maybe Hayes can still be a valuable part to the team and stick around. But if he plays better and/or some of the youth don’t develop as well as management wants, does that not make him even more valuable to trade for a team that’s in rebuild mode?
The Rangers, logically, probably are not going to trade Hayes just yet. But when deadline time comes and a team is looking for a piece to win now, will a trade offer be too desirable to pass up?