Jets Make Significant Upgrade With Hayes Trade

For the second straight season, the Winnipeg Jets made a deadline-day deal to improve their stock at centre, acquiring Kevin Hayes from the New York Rangers in exchange for their 2019 first-round pick, Brendan Lemieux, and a conditional fourth-round draft pick.

Kevin Hayes - Rangers
After nearly five full seasons with the New York Rangers, Kevin Hayes is heading to the Winnipeg Jets. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Hayes wasn’t the biggest catch in the pond or on the Jets’ fish-finder, acquiring him made sense given the circumstances. The 26-year-old should be able to bolster the Jets over their final 20 regular-season games and, more importantly, in their quest for the Stanley Cup this spring.

Price for Hometown Stone Simply Too High

For weeks, the Jets appeared to be front-runners in the Mark Stone sweepstakes and in prime position to bring the 26-year-old scoring winger to his hometown. Ottawa Senators’ brass had been mainstays at the Bell MTS Place in a four-day stretch earlier this month.

The Winnipeg Free Press‘ Mike McIntyre spotted Senators GM Pierre Dorion and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff “meeting behind closed doors in Cheveldayoff’s suite during the second intermission” of the Feb. 17 Sunday afternoon game between the Manitoba Moose and Milwaukee Admirals.

“Dorion then left and was on the phone for several minutes before returning to his press box seat, while Cheveldayoff and Chipman sat down together in the GM’s office as the third period began,” McIntyre wrote, (From ‘Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets GMs huddle; is a trade in works?’, Winnipeg Free Press, 02/17/19). Discussions were extensive.

However, Dorion set a price precedent for Stone on Friday when he traded Matt Duchene to the Columbus Blue Jackets for their 2019 first-round pick, two prospects, and conditionally, their 2020 first-round pick if Duchene re-signs with the Jackets. At the end of the day, Cheveldayoff — unwilling to mortgage his team’s future for a rental, even one as potentially game-changing as Stone — balked at the high price.

Ottawa Senators Mark Stone
The Jets had been rumoured as a front-runner in the Mark Stone sweepstakes for weeks, but at the end of the day, the asking price was just too high for the Senators’ alternate captain. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

“The market is drying up on Mark Stone for the Ottawa Senators, for no other reason than because their ask is so high,” Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos said Saturday. “They’d love to mirror the pieces that they got with Duchene… And right now, there doesn’t seem to be any teams biting, including the Winnipeg Jets.”

Kypreos believed it came down to the fact that the Senators were looking for NHL-ready players as opposed to prospects, but it’s just as likely the sticking point for Cheveldayoff was having to give the Senators multiple first-rounders. Asking Cheveldayoff for one first-rounder — everyone knew he’d have to part with this year’s to acquire an impact player — is one thing. Asking him for two — considering he built the Jets from the ground up with them — is another: and he wasn’t willing to do it.

Mark Scheifele Kyle Connor
Kevin Cheveldayoff built the Jets into a Stanley Cup contender by using his first-round draft picks to select Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and others. He is loath to part with even one first-round pick, let alone two. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Stone ended up going to the Vegas Golden Knights less than an hour before the deadline and immediately signed an eight-year extension. The Senators ended up with less for him than they did for Duchene, receiving Erik Brannstrom, Oscar Lindberg, and the Dallas Stars’ 2020 second-round pick in return. It appears Dorion held onto his high asking price for too long and, once he realized his time to ship Stone was ticking away and he had no suitors willing to pay what he wanted, ended up settling for a lesser offer.

Hayes Represents a Big Upgrade For Jets’ Second-Line

While he lacks Stone’s flash, Hayes is a proven above-average play driver who generates high-danger scoring chances at a high rate. A big part of his game is his playmaking prowess, and he should be able to slide seamlessly into the role as the Jets’ second-line centre, which, one would have to think, will include Nikolaj Ehlers on the left and Patrik Laine on the right.

With 42 points in 51 games this season, Hayes is on pace to set a career high. The Dorchester, MA product has 216 points in 361 career NHL games and has also been a darling from an analytical standpoint this season. Andrew Berkshire recently noted Hayes’ “uniformly excellent underlying numbers, including an on-ice high-danger scoring chance differential at nearly 62 per cent.”

Hayes’ strength on the rush should be beneficial to Laine and Ehlers. (Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

“Hayes brings a rush element to the table in spades, slightly better at shooting off the rush than the Jets centres, and a huge upgrade on anyone not named Scheifele in playmaking off the rush…” Berkshire noted in a mid-February piece on Hayes. “Adding Hayes would boost the Jets’ secondary scoring by adding a new dynamic to the second line — and you don’t lose any of the playmaking skill Little has on cycle plays, as Hayes is actually one of the top players in the league at connecting on passes to the slot,” (from ‘Jets should make room in barn for Hayes,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 02/12/19).

Having Hayes dishing pucks to Laine and Ehlers should be pretty exciting to watch. “I’m a pass-first type player,” he said in a conference call Monday morning. “I’m excited to play with some goal scorers.”

Buffalo Sabres Matt Hunwick Winnipeg Jets Patrik Laine
It’s no secret that Patrik Laine’s struggled with Bryan Little as his centre. A new man in the middle could be just what the doctor ordered for the Finn to get back to producing at even strength. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Hayes should also be able to help reignite the Jets’ power play. It’s due for some personnel changes, having scored just four goals in the Jets’ past 10 games. Hayes has tallied a career-high 11 power-play points already this season and 37 in his career.

Jets Sold High on Lemieux

While losing Lemieux puts the Jets short on grit going forward, they took his strong play since Christmas as an opportunity to sell high and only give up one roster player in the deal.

The ultra-competitive forward was a unique commodity in the Jets’ organization as someone who could hit, scrap, crash and bang while still possessing enough offensive prowess to chip in when needed. He’s the type of player that fits in well on a modern NHL team’s bottom-six.

Brendan Lemieux Winnipeg Jets
Lemieux’s stock increased over the past few months and the Jets used that to their advantage in only having to give up one player along with their first-rounder for Hayes. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The 22-year-old tallied nine goals and two assists in 44 games for the Jets this season, with the majority coming over the past two months. We recently explored his role on the Jets’ fourth line, a line which proved to be dominant at possessing the puck at five-on-five and creating scoring chances.

The prominence of that line and their success — albeit in a fairly short time frame — increased Lemieux’s profile and the Lemieux-Copp-Appleton line had reached its expiration date anyway: Ehlers’ return from injury busted it up and sent Lemieux into the press box for the Jets’ past two contests.

Hayes Trade Couldn’t Come At a Better Time

The Jets have slumped for most of February and have just three wins in their last 10 games, so the addition of Hayes couldn’t come at a better time. Having a fresh face to shake up their lines and provide a new headache for opponents will benefit the team as they attempt to work through the many flaws that have come to the forefront.

Whether Hayes will have the same impact as Paul Stastny did last season — 13 points in 19 regular season games and 15 more in the Jets’ run to the Western Conference Final — or if the former Ranger will have the same instant chemistry with Laine and Ehlers as Stastny did remain to be seen.

At first glance, however, trading for Hayes looks like yet another shrewd move for Cheveldayoff, one that was well managed and methodical on one of the most frantic and frenetic days of the season.

Kevin Cheveldayoff, Winnipeg Jets
At first glance, the Hayes trade looks like another shrewd one for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Cheveldayoff missed out on Stone but give him credit, he decided he couldn’t wait any longer for Dorion and the Senators to drop their ask and went to work to get the next-best thing well in advance of the afternoon deadline. Standing pat would have been a disaster, and he knew that.

While we’ll have to wait and see the extent of Hayes’ impact on the Jets down the stretch, it’s clear he represents a huge upgrade up the middle for a reasonable price.