Kevin Hayes: The Hidden Key to the New York Rangers’ Success

How has Kevin Hayes propelled the Blueshirts to the top of the NHL?

Following their loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the New York Rangers faced the departure of several important players in the offseason.

The Eastern Conference champions lost Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle, and Derek Dorsett to free agency. More importantly, general manager Glen Sather utilized the team’s second and final allotted amnesty buyout on center Brad Richards, freeing the team of the veteran’s ungodly contract yet leaving a gaping hole at the center-ice position. (New York owed the 34-year-old Richards $6.67 million per season for the next six years before buying out the contract.)

While he was serviceable in his three seasons with the Blueshirts, Richards’ sharp decline in play was evident, and the team simply could not afford to pay superstar money for average production. Nevertheless, when the Rangers cut ties, they were tasked with replacing the 20 goals and 31 assists provided by the aging veteran. While Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard would be counted on to center the top two lines, with Dominic Moore slotting into the fourth center role, the third-line center position remained a massive question mark.

Enter Kevin Hayes.

Hayes’ History

The Boston product was selected 24th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 draft and went on to play four years in the NCAA with Boston College. He provided solid -- yet unspectacular -- play in his first three seasons at Boston College.

Hayes tallied 17 goals and 50 assists in 102 total games played from 2010 through 2013. He then proceeded to explode in his senior campaign, playing alongside Johnny "Hockey" Gaudreau (this year’s Calder Trophy frontrunner), piling up 28 goals and 39 assists over just 39 games.

This past summer, Hayes was presented with a decision. He could sign an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks or allow Chicago’s exclusive rights to expire, since four years had passed since he was drafted. He chose the latter option, and became a free agent on August 16th. Several teams made an attempt to sign Hayes, all offering the NHL maximum entry-level salary. With money removed from the equation, he was afforded the unique opportunity to choose the team and city that he believed would benefit his development.

On August 20th, Kevin Hayes agreed to terms with the New York Rangers.

Fitting in with New York

Hayes saw an opportunity to make the Rangers’ squad out of training camp, eyeing the third center spot vacated by the departure of Brad Richards. Coincidentally, Richards not only opened the door for Hayes to sign with New York but may have also been a major factor in pushing him away from the Blackhawks in the first place.

Richards signed with Chicago earlier in the summer, adding to the logjam of forwards that likely caused Hayes to doubt his chances of making the team.

Hayes immediately impressed in preseason, showing the Rangers coaching staff all they needed to see to grant him a place on the opening day roster, along with the chance to play his way into a permanent spot. Hayes took the opportunity and ran with it. Having exactly zero professional experience coming into the season, he saw limited ice-time early in the season, as head coach Alain Vigneault is notoriously cautious with rookies.

However, as the season progressed, there was no denying the talent of the 22-year-old. Vigneault gradually granted Hayes more ice time, including some powerplay opportunities and crucial late-game shifts. He settled nicely into the third line center role, providing the driving force behind an extremely effective line. He has spent most of the year with Carl Hagelin on one wing and some combination of J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast, and Lee Stempniak on the other side.

Through the first four months of the season, Hayes demonstrated why he was originally chosen in the first round. He dominated possession by utilizing his large frame to shield defenders from the puck, using his slick hands and impressive vision to create space and distribute the puck to teammates. However, the numbers were not quite there for Hayes between October and January. He put up 6 goals and 11 assists over 42 games, while averaging around 12 minutes of ice time.

Another Gear

At that point, Hayes had basically played a full NCAA season condensed into a shorter timeframe. Rather than succumb to the grind of a long NHL season and the pressure of New York’s bright lights, he flipped the switch and elevated his game to another level. He began to convert his strong play and savvy decision-making into points. In the last 29 games, Hayes has accrued 9 goals and 13 assists, while seeing a slight bump in his time on ice up to 14 minutes per game.

How does Hayes stack up against the rest of the league, considering his limited ice time? Despite his slow start, he ranks 23rd in the NHL -- among players with at least 40 games played -- with 2.30 points per 60 minutes while at even-strength. This mark places Hayes ahead of Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, and Steven Stamkos, just to name a few.

Since February, he holds a mark of 3.03 points per 60 minutes, good for fourth among all NHL players with at least 20 games played in that span. Even with his early struggles and below-average time on ice, Hayes has managed 20 primary assists (passes that lead directly to goals) at even strength. This total is enough for second place in the NHL, behind only Ryan Getzlaf’s 21.

Kevin Hayes has quietly put together an outstanding rookie campaign, playing a key role in the in the success of the Rangers, who are fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are poised for another deep playoff run. His presence will allow the team to roll out three balanced scoring lines in the playoffs. If the Hayes line is able to continue feasting on favorable matchups while the first two lines draw other teams’ top defenders, the New York Rangers will be a very tough team to beat, as they have been all season.

A Key Piece

The emergence of Kevin Hayes has not only helped boost the Rangers to the top of the standings but has afforded Glen Sather the maneuverability to acquire another crucial piece. At the deadline, Sather packaged blue-chip prospect Anthony Duclair in a trade for Arizona’s Keith Yandle, a sensational puck-moving defenseman.

Yandle provides an elite offensive presence from the blue line, something the Rangers have lacked since Brian Leetch led the Rangers to a Stanley Cup in 1994. Following the trade, Sather openly admitted that Hayes’s excellent play had rendered Duclair expendable, freeing up the Rangers to bolster a defensive corps that was already regarded as one of the top units in the league.

The move indicates that the Rangers are in full win-now mode, in attempt to cash in on their league-best 14.28% chance to win the Stanley Cup.

Like he already has this season, Hayes will play a major role in their quest to bring the Stanley Cup to New York.