Kevin Hayes is the Rangers biggest decision during this rebuild
Kevin Hayes is 26 years old and a pending unrestricted free agent this summer. He has spent his entire NHL career with the Rangers after being signed as a free agent in 2014. During that time, Hayes has shown flashes of excellence while being moved from wing to center. In 343 games as a Blueshirt he has amassed 82 goals and 201 points. Hayes has done all this and become a reliable two-way player on both the Power Play and Penalty Kill. So why is keeping him such a hard decision?
When it comes to keeping or trading Kevin Hayes, I’m probably as objective as they come. For me, it is easy to see the benefits of both options. However, for some Rangers fans they either want him here for good or can’t wait to see him go.
The argument either way seems pretty irrational to me when I take a step out of the box and see it from the outside looking in. When it comes to those that want him gone, they instantly cite his 6’5″ frame and lack of physicality. Or they mention that he holds on to the puck too long and is unwilling to shoot. At face value, these are all true and correct criticisms.
When it comes to the contingent of fans that want him locked up for the next 7 years they point to games like last night against Anaheim. Hayes scored a beauty shorthanded goal to give the Rangers a comeback victory against a defensively sound and good team. Hayes was able to do this because of his hockey IQ, deceptive speed and long reach while killing a penalty.
Hayes is the team’s second leading scorer (3 points behind Mika Zibanejad) and is on pace for a career year of 67 points. That is 18 points better than his best season of 49 points in 2016-17. His reliability in both zones makes him one of the Rangers most versatile forwards and justifies all the praise he is getting.
Still, none of the statements above make Hayes untouchable or a must move player.
Why he should stay
The case for keeping Kevin Hayes is simple: he’s a very good player.
Dare I say that for the rebuilding Rangers he may even be more valuable than current #1 center, Mika Zibanejad because he can kill penalties and shut down other centers. That isn’t a knock on Mika but just a cold hard fact. In truth, neither of them are point a game players or seem to have the ability to elevate the games of their line mates. Both players would benefit greatly with a legit offensive threat on their wing, none more so than Zibanejad.
Hayes on the other hand is a far more versatile player. He can play both center or wing and play all special teams effectively. More importantly, if the Rangers do go out and acquire a top level talent or their prospects start emerging as they were touted, he could slot down into the 3rd line center role and be even more effective. Whereas Zibanejad in a lesser role would likely not be.
Why he should go
For me this boils down to not just money, but what can you get for Hayes in a deal. His current cap hit is 5.175M and his next deal will likely garner him at least 7M per. So many people immediately hear that number and scream to jettison Hayes as quickly as possible. Those people are wrong.
Brock Nelson is comparable center on the NYI and makes 4.25M and has 22 points this season. Probably the best comp is former Ranger, J.T. Miller who just signed a 5 year deal at 5.25M and has 25 points in 35 games on the best team in the NHL. Yes, the guy playing with the likes of Stamkos and Kucherov has less points than Hayes playing with who exactly?
Still, if Hayes’ contract demands are in the 8 to 9 million range for 7 years, then it would be best to find the right trading partner. Of course, there is the other possibility that for all the good things I’ve mentioned, another GM will pony up a great package to land him. This will of course require either a sign and trade or more likely allowing other GM’s to negotiate with Hayes before a deal.
If this option helps land the Rangers a legit offensive scoring star or puts them in a great position to land Jack Hughes in the lottery along with other pieces to accelerate the rebuild, then Hayes must be moved.
The bottom line is that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, especially for a rebuilding team. Jeff Gorton and the Rangers have a difficult decision to make with Hayes. To be honest when you look at it objectively, the decision to keep or trade Kevin Hayes could have the biggest impact. The choice Gorton makes may very well determine if this rebuild is successful or not.