In what proved to be a disappointing season for the New York Rangers, several players naturally failed to play up to expectations. One, however, who received unfair treatment from the coaching staff and some media, was sophomore forward Kevin Hayes.
Coming off a strong rookie season where he tallied 17 goals and 28 assists as a 22-year-old, expectations around the Rangers were that Hayes would build on that production in his sophomore campaign. He struggled for parts of the first half of the season though, failing to raise his game to the level the Rangers wanted to see.
His numbers took a slight dip, but he still managed to finish with respectable totals of 14 goals and 22 assists in 79 games.
Head coach Alain Vigneault, however, used Hayes as a scapegoat for some of the team’s inconsistencies, seemingly nitpicking at his game and punishing him for any turnover or sign of a lack of hustle or production. Hayes was a healthy scratch for a couple of games in late December/early January, with Vigneault providing context around the decision at the time (via the New York Post):
[quote_left author=”Alain Vigneault”]
In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him and what we felt he could do were very high. Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that.
Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know, time will tell. But I do know that what I’m seeing now, and what we’re seeing now, is not good enough.”
I think we all have our tipping points, and I think Kevin has had an extra-long leash, especially considering [center Derek Stepan] was out for quite some time. But there’s just nothing going on. At the end of the day, we’re at the point now where we have to make some decisions in the best interests of the team.
To bench a slumping player to light a fire under him is one thing. But for Vigneault to suggest that Hayes had an “extra-long leash” while continuing to give regular minutes to ineffective veterans like Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Tanner Glass is alarming, to say the least. If Hayes had an extra-long leash, what did those players have? No leash at all?
Strong Underlying Numbers
What makes Vigneault’s criticism and treatment of Hayes worse is the fact that his underlying play was actually very strong for most of the year. Did he go through scoring slumps? Yes. Did he sometimes turn the puck over? Of course. But he also produced at a good clip for someone who received largely bottom-six minutes and played with fourth-liners for much of the season.
Being a playmaking center with size (6’5″, 227 lbs.), it’s tempting to compare Hayes to San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton (6’4″, 225 lbs.). While no one should expect Hayes to put up the same types of numbers over the course of his career as Thornton—a surefire Hall-of-Famer—taking a look at each player’s production and possession numbers per 60 minutes (I gave into the temptation) reveals some very interesting findings (via ownthepuck.blogspot.com).
— Tom Dianora (@tom_dianora) June 19, 2016
Hayes’s production per 60 minutes is actually better than Thornton’s, as he wins by a significant margin in goals and is even in primary assists. Factoring in all primary points per 60 minutes, Hayes produces at the level of a strong first-liner, while Thornton comes in as a strong second-liner. Not bad for a player who got bottom-six player who was publicly called out for a lack of production by his head coach.
While Thornton did have 82 points this past season (19 goals, 63 assists), his higher amount of ice time contributed to his per-60-minute offensive numbers coming in lower than Hayes’s (Thornton got nearly five more minutes of ice time per game than Hayes).
Thornton did have an edge in possession and shot suppression, performing at an elite level in those areas. That said, Hayes was not a poor possession player by any stretch, as his relative numbers place him in the second-line tier. For a Rangers team that was terrible in possession throughout the year, Hayes proved to be one of the few exceptions to the norm. So naturally, he got criticized and benched.
If Vigneault and the Rangers had given Hayes more minutes and more opportunities to play with some of the team’s better offensive players, perhaps they would have seen these first- and second-line numbers become more evident in Hayes’s point totals.
In any event, Hayes is still only 24 years old, so the Rangers should be looking to help him grow (and allow a legitimately long leash in the process), not to try to move him during an offseason that is sure to see major changes to the roster. Hayes is a restricted free agent, but the Rangers need to re-sign him, not trade him, and make sure that he is a big part of the club’s future.