Kevin Hayes has had quite a remarkable rookie year out of position
While it may not look like it by his play on the ice, Kevin Hayes is actually a natural winger, and not a center. He has been playing at the pivot position since the beginning of the season due to the Rangers paper thin depth down the middle, which was only further compounded when Derek Stepan went down with a leg injury during training camp.
Remember when Martin St. Louis was taking face-offs? Yes, that was a long time ago. Now that we are almost at the end of the regular season, let’s take a look at Kevin Hayes’ emergence as an NHL centerman.
Kevin Hayes came to the Rangers via Free Agency on August 20, after he and the Blackhawks could not come to terms on a contract since being drafted 24th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. He played his way onto the Rangers out of training camp and has not looked back. It has been amazing to watch the way he has transitioned from the college hockey schedule of only playing games on the weekend, to the NHL schedule, which is obviously more rigorous and demanding.
Hayes has played in 65 of the Rangers 68 games this season, and in only nine of those games did he win more face-offs than he lost. He has had an 0-for in the face-off circle in three games this season. For the year, he is 205-341 in the face-off circle, for a 37.55 face-off winning percentage. Being that Hayes is not a natural center, this seems to be a respectable percentage, while natural centers Derrick Brassard and Derek Stepan have produced winning percentages in the face-off circle of 48.28% and 43.29% respectively.
With that being said, Hayes’ performance in the face-off circle should by no means downplay the impact he has had on the team this year. Think about this way, he wasn’t even on the roster until mid-August, so nobody even had him on their radar screens until he signed.
Many Rangers fans went into training camp worried who would pick-up the production left behind by Brad Richards departure, and Hayes has done just that. His 32 points (13 goals and 19 assists) are good for 8th among all rookies, but most importantly, he along with Carl Hagelin and J.T. Miller, have formed one of the best third lines in the league, which makes the Rangers an even deeper team.
With the news coming out that Martin St. Louis will be out for the next 10-14 days, Hayes will definitely be leaned upon to try and provide some more offense, and maybe he will even get some more powerplay time. Hayes was skating on line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello at practice on the RW. A familiar combo that worked for 1 game and saw Hayes produce a goal.
Hayes has also expanded his game to include a penalty killing role. Something which no team can have a shortage of, as this gives AV three centers who can kill penalties, all who can also score shorthanded (Hayes vs. ARZ on 2/14). He also has a very long reach, something which is key on the PK while trying to prevent passes through the “box” set by the defense.
His vision and strength on the ice have been key to his success, and he uses that ability to create plays for everyone around him. We have also seen him use his big frame and soft hands to score some beautiful goals, like the one he scored on Tuesday night at the Islanders. This skill set, along with his contributions on the ice is what allowed Glen Sather to move Anthony Duclair at the trade-deadline.
As I wrote last week, a team can never have too many cheap, young, talented players, but this was a deal the Rangers wanted to make, and the emergence of Hayes as a real impact player on this team, allowed Sather to send Duclair to the desert.
Kevin Hayes is only going to get better. Do I see him as a center in the future? I don’t think so just because AV has expressed a desire to move him back to his natural position if the situation calls for it and the Rangers have Oscar Lindberg waiting for the call up from Hartford. However, if the Rangers do find themselves in need of a center at any point in the coming years, they now know what they have in Hayes’ ability to play the position.
Follow me on twitter: @ekwestel