The New York Rangers avoided arbitration with veteran center Kevin Hayes, signing him to a one-year-deal worth $5.1 million. Is it the last deal he signs with the Blueshirts?
Hayes and the Rangers are now in an interesting situation. New York is rebuilding, with several top assets ready to take a real shot at a regular roster spot. Hayes will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, so this new one-year pact is practically an advertisement that he’ll be available at the trade deadline.
And why not? Hayes has great size at 6-foot-5 and 217 pounds, he’s decent on faceoffs and he plays against top lines. This past year, he was the one seeing a steady diet of Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares and Taylor Hall when those stars played the Rangers.
In the here and now, Hayes will be quite valuable to a New York squad with some promising young centers coming up the pipeline. Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil both made their NHL debuts this past season after being selected in the first round of the 2017 draft. Both play two-way games and though neither has the size of Hayes, they have more offensive upside. But jumping into the NHL as teenagers is no easy task (though, for the record, Andersson turns 20 in October) and Hayes can be a buffer, alongside nominal No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad.
The challenge for rookie coach David Quinn will be balancing the need for growth in his youngsters with the shelter they will need in developing. To that end, Hayes can play either center or on the wing – but maybe one of the kids plays some wing if the responsibilities of playing pivot prove too onerous right off the bat. It’s not a slight if either Andersson or Chytil needs time to adjust and it’s a luxury to have Hayes’ versatility on board for what will be an important year for the Rangers.
GM Jeff Gorton has done a great job accruing assets recently and his eye has firmly been on the future. The haul he received from Tampa Bay for Ryan McDonagh was particularly fruitful and whether players such as defenseman Libor Hajek and center Brett Howden are in the AHL with Hartford or getting bottom-line minutes with the Rangers, they will be challenged as rookie pros.
The McDonagh trade also netted Gorton a second-rounder in 2019 that will become a first-rounder if the Lightning win the Stanley Cup next season – and based on Tampa Bay’s roster, it’s certainly a possibility.
Along with Hayes, Gorton also has a potential rental on his hands in Mats Zuccarello, the talented and diminutive right winger who has led New York in scoring the past three seasons. Zuccarello will be 31 years old by the time the season begins and though he’s still got plenty of hockey left in him, it will only be prudent to shop him around the deadline; by the time the Rangers are ready to really contend with this new wave, Zuccarello will be in his twilight.
Could either Hayes or Zuccarello net a first-rounder at the deadline? Given the salary cap-influenced packages that were put together at last year’s deadline (think of the Rick Nash deal, for example), it’s certainly possible. And from there, Gorton keeps on building.
In the meantime, Hayes will play solid minutes for the Rangers in 2018-19, giving a team in flux some stability down the middle. His 25 goals in 2017-18 was an NHL career-high for the former Boston College star and providing secondary offense will be important once again. Hayes may not be wearing a Rangers uniform after this season, but he’ll be helping the franchise one way or another.