Right on cue, hockey fans are spewing trade rumors as we near the middle of the season and as the February trade deadline draws closer. For the New York Rangers, it is an especially contested topic this season, especially when it comes to the question of what to do with center Kevin Hayes: trade him for younger talent or re-sign him to a new deal.
To make matters more challenging, the NHL’s announcement of a new team in Seattle means another expansion draft in 2021 and any player not protected by their team is eligible to be selected by the new team. However, players with no-movement clauses must be protected and players who are first or second-year professionals are exempt from the draft.
This becomes important when discussing the Rangers’ next move in terms of Hayes, as they will have to decide which skaters to protect and which to risk losing in the expansion draft. If Hayes is extended, it may be possible that the Rangers would have to leave a younger talent such as Brett Howden or Neal Pionk unprotected, and this affects when the decision to trade or extend Hayes.
However, I believe Hayes’ performance over his career, and especially this season, have earned him the right to re-sign with the Rangers and that this is the best decision the Rangers can make in a tough situation.
Hayes Has Been Dominant and Is Consistent
Hayes was drafted 24th overall in 2010 by the Chicago Blackhawks and played four seasons with the Boston College Eagles. His last season was his most memorable as he played on a line with future NHL star Johnny Gaudreau and Bill Arnold. Hayes finished as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey’s highest honor. He won the 2012 NCAA Championship with BC and, in his final season, he was an NCAA East First Team All-American as well as a First Team All-Hockey East selection.
Following his last season at Boston College, Hayes did not sign with the Blackhawks. He became a free agent and eventually signed with the Rangers on Aug. 20, 2014. He made the roster in his first season, registering the most primary assists (25) of any rookie in the league and was seventh in Calder Trophy voting.
In his first four seasons in New York, he averaged 43.5 points and this season he has nine goals and 18 assists for 27 points in 33 games, second-most on the Rangers. He is on-pace to break his previous four-season average. The 6-foot-5, 227-pound forward plays a physical game when battling for pucks, centers the top line for the Rangers and also receives time on the power play. He has 24 points in his last 22 games and has recorded multi-point performances in his last five games.
With how well Hayes is playing right now and his consistent play throughout his career, we can expect him to grow more as a player. At 26, he still has a fair amount of career left and support from younger players will make him a threat to produce.
Rangers’ Two Options: Keep Resetting or Start Rebuilding
While his numbers are great for the Rangers, they are even better for Hayes’ individual resume, and in trade deadline talks, they dominate the discussion. After the first month of the season, Rangers fans were already talking about using Hayes as a trade piece come February, citing his strong play. As a top-25 center in the league, he is a valuable trade chip to acquire first round picks.
Taking all of this into account, some would argue the franchise has two options: trade either Mika Zibanejad or Hayes. Hayes is the preferred option as he will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end after the one-year deal he signed last offseason. Regardless of who it is, some journalists say they cannot keep both.
I disagree with this logic and think the Rangers must keep both centers. It’s a mistake to make decisions for the future of the franchise on a hope that their rookies will evolve to be better than the players currently in the top-six. While I am not doubting the Rangers’ young talent, it is important to realize that development can be a challenging process, and previous junior stars have often not performed up to the hype they stirred when drafted.
Between injuries, potential trades and performance, it is hard to predict where a team will be in four or five years. It’s not smart for the Rangers to use Hayes as a trade token, but instead should build the future of the franchise around him until he is ready to pass it off to a developing star like Filip Chytil, Brady Skjei, Lias Andersson, or Howden.
In five years, these young players will be in their early 20’s and will have had considerable time to develop. At that point, they will be ready to take over the reins from a veteran like Hayes.
Build Around Hayes, Not Trade Him for More Pieces
While it is true that Hayes would arguably be the most sought-after center at the trade deadline, I do not see the need to trade away a player who is instrumental to the team’s success in an attempt to develop another first rounder. Granted, the Rangers are looking for more strength on the wing, but Chytil has moved to the wing on his line and it seems to be working beautifully. Hayes’ talent and leadership present the opportunity to build around him rather than trade him to start rebuilding again. The Rangers’ best bet is to take advantage of the talent they have already developed in Hayes and continue to focus on the young players already in their system.
Another factor is the salary Hayes will require if signs a six-year deal and the effect it will have on the Rangers’ salary cap situation. However, it is important to note that every team needs playmakers and playmakers come with a price. In fact, Hayes’ contract, $5.175 million, is a steal considering what he could be offered on the free agent market, with estimates in the $6.5 million range.
Taking all this into consideration, I see one clear option: trust Hayes’ proven performance, extend his contract with a five or six-year deal and work to rebuild the Rangers around a veteran center who can play a physical and consistent game. He can also help develop the future of the franchise.
Hayes loves New York, and he loves playing for the Rangers. In fact, he hopes to retire as a Ranger. No sense in moving out a 24th overall pick for a first round pick in 2019 just to restart again. Keep Hayes in the Big Apple.
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
McDonagh Trade Left Big Shoes to Fill in Role of Captain
As of now, the Rangers are one of six teams in the NHL without a captain. They do, however, have five alternates. While Henrik Lundqvist would be my first pick for the “C,” the NHL banned goalies from being named captain prior to the 1948-49 season due to goalies stopping play to allow their team to rest while they argued a call with no merit.
For the Rangers, the role of captain has been filled by legendary names, ranging from Vic Hadfield and Mark Messier to Brian Leech and Jaromir Jagr. In short, the previous leaders were not ordinary players but were some of the greatest to wear a Rangers jersey. In fact, half of the Rangers who have had their number retired served as team captain.
Now I am not arguing for Hayes’ number to be retired, far from it. I am simply acknowledging that being named Rangers’ captain is no small feat. However, Hayes has similar characteristics to former captain Ryan McDonagh in the way he plays the game, his impact on the team and his voice on and off the ice. This presents an opportunity to fill a role that Hayes can excel in, making him the perfect candidate.
The Perfect Candidate for the C
Hayes centers one of the Rangers’ best lines, plays on both the power play and penalty kill and is referred to by head coach David Quinn as one of the most talkative guys in the locker room. Having been with the Rangers since the start of his career, he knows what it takes for the them to be successful through a long season, to reach the playoffs and to win big games.
He is the player who is involved in everything, just as McDonagh was in his time wearing a Rangers sweater. At 26, in his fifth season with the Rangers and on-pace for a career-high season, I see no better fit for captain than a player like Hayes who can take a rebuilding franchise and actually rebuild it. When his contract is done, it will set the team up for even greater success than the organization will experience during his tenure wearing the C.
This move is not to win the Rangers a Stanley Cup, but to set the team up to win multiple. I believe Hayes is willing to put in the work to get the team there, has the leadership qualities any team needs in a captain and will remain an integral part of the Rangers throughout the rest of his career. He wants to retire in a Rangers jersey and fans should want that because it will help to position future teams for success and further develop the young talent.
Keep Hayes in a Rangers jersey and put a C on his chest. It is the best move for an organization that is currently rebuilding. The same franchise that had a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014 and is looking for the next stride forward.
Joseph Krause covers everything New York Rangers here at The Hockey Writers, bringing refreshing and stimulating opinions to Blueshirts’ fans. He learned to skate before he could walk (almost literally), and still shoots the puck over the net in Men’s League. When he’s not writing, he is pursuing a PhD from Rice University.