Kevin Hayes has been a captivating figure in the world of the Philadelphia Flyers since general manager (GM) Chuck Fletcher traded for his rights in June 2019 before the free agency period began and quickly inked him to a seven-year, $50 million contract. Immediate skepticism from a fan base waned away when Hayes hit the ground running as a core contributor in 2019-20. Many criticized a lucrative investment in a player who had never produced offensively at a first-line rate, but they quickly saw the overall value he brought to the table.
However, a hard fall from grace for the Flyers in 2020-21 and 2021-22 has everyone in Philadelphia searching for answers. A combination of injuries and poor play derailed Hayes the past two seasons in somewhat of a microcosm of the team at large. With hope for a new era under newly-hired head coach John Tortorella, what are the Flyers looking for from a player that Charlie O’Connor referred to as “the Torts project”?
Hayes Up and Down
Hayes brought an energetic personality to the dressing room during his first season in Philadelphia in 2019-20 and helped restore a sense of swagger and confidence for a franchise that had gone seven seasons without winning a playoff round for the first time in its existence. Although his 41 points in 69 regular-season games didn’t qualify as excellent offensive production, his incredible work on the penalty kill helped a shorthanded unit that improved from 26th in the NHL the previous season to 11th.
The 6-foot-5 center became an energy source with four shorthanded goals (SHG) and a knack for momentum-changing plays. He covered a void in the lineup at second-line center while former second-overall pick Nolan Patrick missed the entire 2019-20 season. He reignited the pride Flyers fans had missed in the preceding seasons as a prominent NHL personality who brought the team to center stage at the same that they finally gained momentum as a relevant contender in the Eastern Conference. The front office even considered the influential effect of the Massachusetts native the following summer when they acquired Cam Atkinson, Keith Yandle, and Patrick Brown partly because of their preexisting relationships with Hayes.
The bottom fell out from under the Flyers the next two seasons worse than reasonable skeptics could’ve envisioned. Hayes dropped minimally from .59 points per game in 2019-20 to .56 in 2020-21, but his impact on the penalty kill disappeared. The unit plummeted to 31st in the NHL, and they scored their lone SHG of the season after they were buried out of playoff contention. The enthusiasm and the thrill of having Hayes as a team leader were gone.
Hayes then stared adversity in the face. Tragedy struck his family with the unfortunate passing of his older brother, and he underwent three surgical operations between May 2021 and January 2022. His stints on the ice in between the operations were far from ideal. Easily noticeable weaknesses restricted him from playing at the height of his talent, and logic suggested that a full summer to recover would make sense for the embattled center after the nightmare.
He admirably returned on March 5, 2022, even with the Flyers a world away from playoff contention. The physical restrictions didn’t look as evident, and Hayes racked up 22 points in his final 28 games. While some criticized his attempts to get back on the ice and risk further injury, the stint was a morale boost for a competitive player who had a genuine desire to skate for his team.
Tortorella Plans to Challenge Hayes
The Flyers have grown stale during the least successful decade span in franchise history. They’ve now brought in a new head coach with a Stanley Cup and 20 seasons of experience on his resume to instill a new collective attitude. The organization feels that bringing in a “piss and vinegar” guy like Tortorella will push them past the period of malaise they’ve somehow dropped into.
Tortorella will look to challenge players and get them out of their comfort zones. Who in particular will that benefit? During his introductory press conference, he spoke about the need to challenge Hayes.
“I’m really interested in talking to Kevin (Hayes). Kevin is one I’m anxious to work with because I think there’s more there. I think he’s a huge piece of the puzzle up the middle of the ice for this organization. He’s one I’m going to try to talk to right away.”
Tortorella continued, “I’m going to be interested in what he has to say. I hear he’s a tremendous guy. I want to try to help him, because if I can help him and make him understand that we’re going to try to get him to another level; what does he do for the Flyers organization up the middle of the ice? I’ve watched from afar, and there’s more there. It’s my responsibility to try and get that out of him.”
Long-time cogs of the leadership group Claude Giroux and Jakub Voráček have now moved on. Hayes remains in Philadelphia as one of the most reputable veteran players on the roster. The organization looked at him as a culture player during their best season in recent history in 2019-20, but how well can he help the Flyers break free from a two-year period of cringe-worthy defeats as one of the worst teams in the NHL?
“Culture. Accountability. All those words, they are really cool summertime words. People like saying those things during the summer. I think us as coaches, when we get the job, it’s about the culture changing, the accountability. It’s real easy to say. Really difficult to do,” Tortorella said about the subjective idea of a culture change with the Flyers.
When a two-time Jack Adams winner looks to spread a powerful message, he is going to start at the top with the most influential veteran voices. Hayes should be ready to leave his comfort zone under the new head coach. He is entering his 30-year-old season with four years left on a hefty contract. He exceeded the anticipated value of his salary in his first year of the deal, but he failed to replicate it for reasons inside and outside his control in years two and three. For better or for worse, he will be one of the highest-paid players on the roster for the duration of Tortorella’s contract with the Flyers.
A key factor in the decision to acquire and sign Hayes in 2019 was his experience under Alain Vigneault with the New York Rangers. The unceremonious demise of Vigneault left the organization with a potential albatross contract for their second-line center, but they hope their new head coach can maximize the resources at his disposal. If Flyers fans need storylines to get excited about entering 2022-23, they should look no further than two of the most colorful personalities in the NHL entering their first season together.
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Colin Newby is a freelance writer from Delaware County, PA covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers. He is an encyclopedia of useless sports knowledge with an uncanny ability to rattle off Flyers goaltending stats from 2004 and every Stanley Cup winner during his lifetime. The depths of his knowledge stem from spending his entire life following the Flyers and the NHL, from fan favorites like the “Legion of Doom” and Claude Giroux to forgotten journeymen like Andy Delmore and Branko Radivojevič. He joined the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association (PHWA) in 2022.
Colin also covers the Philadelphia Eagles and works for 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia.